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WE RECOMMEND
‘The Social Experience of Childhood...
‘The Social Experience of Childhood...
... in Ancient Mesoamerica’ Eds. Traci Ardren & Scott R. Hutson (Uni Press of Colorado, 2006)
3 stages of childhood in ancient Mesoamerica

Stages of childhood in ancient Mesoamerica

How do we study childhood in (ancient) Mesoamerica? Is the very concept ‘childhood’ Eurocentric? If they study the subject at all, archaeologists tend to look for purely ‘physical’ evidence - generally regarded by scholars as sparse - in ‘sub-adult burials, artistic representations of people who are small... or baby-like..., poor quality artifacts presumably produced by novices, and artefacts occasionally interpreted as toys, such as figurines and miniature versions of tools’ (Scott Hutson). So what chances do we stand of learning about Mesoamerican children growing up centuries ago, when the whole subject has been very little explored in academic literature? (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Aztec boys, from baby to adolescent; Florentine Codex Book 10
Pic 1: Aztec boys, from baby to adolescent; Florentine Codex Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

Not surprisingly, apart from all-important childbirth, the depiction and documentation of children’s lives in codices, sculpture, pottery and colonial chronicles is rare: it simply wasn’t a priority to native Mesoamericans nor to the invaders from Europe in the 16th century. We’re blessed with an impressively rich and well illustrated section on growing up as an Aztec in the Codex Mendoza, with sporadic references to children in ritual and ceremonial contexts in the Florentine Codex and a much less detailed account of children’s lives among the Maya of Yucatan in Fray Diego de Landa’s memoirs; but all these are postcolonial documents. We know from these and other sources that centuries ago Mesoamerican parents were loving, strict, and placed great emphasis on the correct training and bringing up of children to be responsible and hardworking members of the community. But we know little about the journey itself through early life...

Pic 2: Pottery figurine of a mother carrying two children, culture unknown (INAH reproduction)
Pic 2: Pottery figurine of a mother carrying two children, culture unknown (INAH reproduction) (Click on image to enlarge)

Here we will focus on an idea that has increasingly gained momentum in the literature in the last couple of decades, thanks in no small measure to the pioneering work of Professor Rosemary A. Joyce, one of the very few scholars to have analysed this journey, positing a series of distinct ‘stages’, equal in length, passed through by Mesoamerican children. Though her initial research focused on the Mexica/Aztecs, we now know that the same held for the (Classic) Maya. Alongside Joyce, other eminent scholars - in particular Alfredo López Austin and Inga Clendinnen - have given us further valuable insights into this developmental progression, with deep roots in Mesoamerican culture.

Pic 3: Protecting children from the dangers of ‘lesser Goddesses’ descending to earth on the ‘evil’ day 1-Eagle; Florentine Codex Book 4, Chapter 33
Pic 3: Protecting children from the dangers of ‘lesser Goddesses’ descending to earth on the ‘evil’ day 1-Eagle; Florentine Codex Book 4, Chapter 33 (Click on image to enlarge)

In a nutshell what is proposed is a series of three progressive ‘stages of being’, roughly from 0-4 years of age, 4-8 and 8-12, which we might call infancy, youngster and pre-adult, at the end of which - along with puberty - full socialisation, maturity and entry into adulthood - indeed, some argue, achievement of the complete status of human being - loom fast. These stages have been shown to be accompanied by rites of passage, including body markings - and manipulations - and costuming, that could comprise what Traci Ardren suggests is ‘one of the core elements of self-identity and cultural organisation’ in Mesoamerican cultures.

In general, childhood was seen - in particular by the Mexica - as a period fraught with dangers of all kinds, from physical (infection, poor health...) to supernatural. Sahagún refers several times to the risks children faced at the hands of the ‘lesser Goddesses’ who ‘did evil to the small children’ on days of bad omen, such as 1-Eagle (pic 3) - when children had to be ‘carefully watched’ and kept indoors (Book 4).
It was also a period in which the individual enjoyed (at least, as we shall see below, in the early years) maximum purity of spirit, permitting fluid communication between child and gods. As Juan Alberto Román Berrelleza and Ximena Chávez Balderas explain, this communication began even before birth itself: ‘In the intrauterine life, the foetus was ensouled with the tonalli, the anima of one of the entities central to Mexica cosmology. This soul was housed in the head and was strengthened in the ritual bath’ (a bath depicted frequently in Book 4 of the Florentine Codex).

Pic 4: Nopiloa mother and child, moulded clay figurine, Veracruz, K4868
Pic 4: Nopiloa mother and child, moulded clay figurine, Veracruz, K4868 (Click on image to enlarge)

Just as the protective ritual bath is often illustrated in the Florentine Codex, so probably the most ubiquitous representation of children in Mesoamerican iconography is the mother-and-child figurine (pic 4), so evocative of the limitless care and devotion showered on infants by parents. For many decades scholars frequently interpreted these figurines - some of which double as whistles - as children’s toys. Today, however, this idea is subject to increasing scepticism: as Stacie M. King points out, more and more evidence ‘link[s] figurines and figurine use to ritual action involving people of all ages’ - being found placed, for instance, on altars and offered sacrifices, on the sides of paths to mark community boundaries, at stops in ritual processions, on thresholds of houses, or in front of caves to mark entrance/exit points.

Pic 5: Stage 1 - infancy. Illustration by Steve Radzi
Pic 5: Stage 1 - infancy. Illustration by Steve Radzi (Click on image to enlarge)

Time to consider each stage in more detail...
STAGE 1
This initial stage, from birth to weaning, was that of maximum purity. Whilst still being breast-fed by the mother, the infant was not considered to have yet entered the real world (‘free from involvement in the human condition’ - Clendinnen): (s)he could not be punished, took no part at all in community rituals, received no formal training, was always carried, and if tragically (s)he were to die, (s)he would be buried apart from adults - ‘by the maize bins at the house entry’ - and go straight to one of the highest of the 13 ‘heavens’, to be suckled by the Tree of Sustenance that delivered sacred milk from myriad breasts on its branches.

Pic 6: Infancy - ‘an innocent paradise of warmth, of tenderness, of sweet nourishment freely and joyfully given...’ (Inga Clendinnen); illustration by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 6: Infancy - ‘an innocent paradise of warmth, of tenderness, of sweet nourishment freely and joyfully given...’ (Inga Clendinnen); illustration by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

Often weaning occurred at the birth of a second child (usually 3-4 years later), and it was at this point that the first child became most at risk of an early death, as its diet changed drastically from a lush supply of rich maternal milk to a sparse and carefully regulated food regime, a miniature version of adult rations...
Prior to weaning, children were, in Joyce’s words, ‘little differentiated’ - their haircuts were undistinguished and they rarely wore clothing of any kind. In terms of gender specifics, ‘their adult destiny was marked symbolically by the provision of miniature tools and costume, and their bodies were prepared for distinctive adult ornaments differentiating between priestly and secular careers’.

Pic 7: Stage 2 - youngster. Illustration by Steve Radzi
Pic 7: Stage 2 - youngster. Illustration by Steve Radzi (Click on image to enlarge)

STAGE 2
Joyce notes that ‘Between about age 4 and 8, Mexica children were subject to the beginnings of training in adult tasks and wore parts of the adult costume. By the end of this period, they had received the ear perforations that would eventually accommodate adult earspools, were subject to physical discipline, and were initiated into key aspects of ritual practice, notably ceremonial drinking.’ Thanks in part to the writings of Diego de Landa in the 16th century, we know that much the same progression occurred among the Maya of Yucatán. The Maya ceremony of ‘second birth’ - compared by de Landa to Christian baptism - introduced children to participation in ritual for the first time, aged 3-4, and was followed by disciplining by elders and the wearing of mini versions of adult clothing.

Pic 8: Punishment: ‘Human tenderness could not temper that bleak reality, but only strengthen the individual to bear it’ (Clendinnen); detail, mural by Regina Raúll, ‘Paisaje Mexica’ (1964), National Museum of Anthropology
Pic 8: Punishment: ‘Human tenderness could not temper that bleak reality, but only strengthen the individual to bear it’ (Clendinnen); detail, mural by Regina Raúll, ‘Paisaje Mexica’ (1964), National Museum of Anthropology (Click on image to enlarge)

This was a particularly stressful and demanding time for the young child: used to constant attention, (s)he becomes, in Ardren’s words ‘the smallest member of a busy domestic world’, now supervised and cared for by an older sibling - parents had important labour obligations to fulfil, and the mother often had a new baby to nurture. As already noted, the youngster now had to switch to the traditional maize-based diet of grown-ups, heavy on carbohydrates and light on protein, and this, combined with the stresses of urban life in a city the size of Tenochtitlan - crowds, noise, dirt, walking through busy streets to market, even petty crime - placed a severe strain on their physical and emotional health. The latter would have been further tested by the imposition of a harsh disciplinary code (spelt out in detail in the Codex Mendoza).

Pic 9: The piercing of children’s earlobes, festival of Izcalli; Florentine Codex Book 2
Pic 9: The piercing of children’s earlobes, festival of Izcalli; Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

The honeymoon of infancy over, the initiation of children into the maize cycle fundamentally changed their relationship to the gods. At four-yearly intervals, during the ‘Growth/Sprouting’ festival of Izcalli, the latest cohort of Mexica children, having been weaned and now able to walk unaided, were formally presented at midnight to the religious authorities at the main temple by honorary ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’, there to have their ears pierced and then threaded with cotton, and their heads adorned with soft parrot feathers. The pain and discomfort was magnified by the children then being directly introduced to the smoke of burning incense and to the sacred drink octli (pulque). This literal ‘taste’ of adult ceremonial would be followed in the immediate years ahead by an introduction to the world of work...

Pic 10: 6-year-old Mexica children at work: boys gathering leftovers at market, girls learning to spin cotton at home; Codex Mendoza fol. 58r (detail)
Pic 10: 6-year-old Mexica children at work: boys gathering leftovers at market, girls learning to spin cotton at home; Codex Mendoza fol. 58r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

By the age of six, as the Codex Mendoza illustrates (pic 10), children were already being sent to the marketplace to gather discarded corn kernels and other produce that was never allowed to go to waste. Sahagún quotes his Aztec informers on this: ‘They said: “Our sustenance suffereth: it lieth weeping. If we should not gather it up, it would accuse us before our lord. it would say: ‘O our lord, this vassal picked me not up when I lay scattered upon the ground. Punish him!’ Or perhaps we should starve.”’

Pic 11: Children crying, Codex Mendoza, fol. 59r (detail)
Pic 11: Children crying, Codex Mendoza, fol. 59r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, it was during this stage that young children were most at risk - especially if born on ill-omen days - of being ritually sacrificed, their precious tears representing highly symbolic and ritualised exchange offerings to rain deities. As Ellsworth Hamann records, ‘Of the forty-two children sacrificed as part of Offering no. 48 in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, all were ages 3-7, with ages 4, 5 and 5 being the most heavily represented’. In a classic study of Mexica festivals, H. B. Nicholson calculated that, of the 18 annual veintena ceremonies - the yearly round of twenty-day monthly feasts - four of them included child sacrifice.

Pic 12: Stage 3 - pre-adult. Illustration by Steve Radzi
Pic 12: Stage 3 - pre-adult. Illustration by Steve Radzi (Click on image to enlarge)

STAGE 3, and beyond...
By the age of 8 or 9, ‘children who had previously played together since weaning were expected to differentiate themselves along strict gender-based lines and segregate themselves from one another for much of the day. Boys began to accompany their fathers to agricultural fields; girls began to haul water, prepare food, and weave’ (Ardren). In many ways, of course, these and other family-based tasks continue to be performed by youngsters throughout Mesoamerica today, and they remain just as demanding.
By the end of this stage, both boys and girls sported a long, flowing haircut and ‘full, adult clothing that distinguished between male and female. Transition to full adult status was accompanied by the use of earspools and adult hairstyles’ (Joyce).

Pic 13: Through learning a craft, ‘children would simultaneously learn what it was to be a proper person in their society’ (Joyce). Illustration by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 13: Through learning a craft, ‘children would simultaneously learn what it was to be a proper person in their society’ (Joyce). Illustration by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

As important as undertaking mundane chores in the domestic sphere, children were encouraged to learn specific crafts from a young age: these aided their socialisation and the reproduction of culture in general. It could also dramatically raise their status in later life: elite Mexica craft guilds such as gold- and featherworkers encouraged their sons to attend the calmecac (priestly school) and were highly trained. Daughters with exceptional talent at embroidery could end up working in the ruler’s palace, or (in the case of the guilds just mentioned) receive specialist training in ‘the exacting business of judging colour and dyeing fur and feathers to a precise match’ (Clendinnen).

Pic 14: Monuments 8 and 9, from Loma del Zapote, Xalapa Museum of Anthropology
Pic 14: Monuments 8 and 9, from Loma del Zapote, Xalapa Museum of Anthropology (Click on image to enlarge)

At the end of the third stage - hitting 12 or 13 years of age - both Mexica and Maya children were old enough to receive formal training in - and for boys at least boarding at - schools away from home. Marriage was now only a few years away, and elite adolescents, particularly among the Maya, were also now old enough to take on the ultimate adult responsibility: rulership itself. The high status of elite adolescents has been identified in two classic Olmec ‘twin-like figures that display compact but slender bodies and youthful faces’ (Follensbee) in the Museum of Anthropology of Xalapa (pic 14). We know that several Maya kings acceded to power at this tender young age; a dramatic reflection of just how quickly Mesoamerican youngsters grew into adulthood. It tallies with data from the Codex Mendoza showing that only after the thirteenth year did Mexica youths qualify for a full ration of two whole tortillas...

Pic 15: Illustration by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 15: Illustration by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

Info sources:-
The Social Experience of Childhood in Ancient Mesoamerica, edited by Traci Ardren and Scott R. Hutson, University Press of Colorado, 2006. In particular, the chapters by Traci Ardren, Scott R. Hutson, Stacie M. King, Byron Ellsworth Hamann, Juan Alberto Román Berrelleza and Ximena Chávez Balderas, Billie Follensbee, and Rosemary A. Joyce
Aztecs by Inga Clendinnen, Cambridge University Press, 1991 (esp. pp. 188-192)
The Codex Mendoza, voi. 2 (Description), by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, University of California Press, 1992.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture and pix 5, 7 & 12: illustrations by, special thanks to and © Steve Radzi (mayavision.com)
• Pix 1, 3 & 9: images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence): images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 2, 8 & 14: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 4: photo by, courtesy of and © Justin Kerr (mayavase.com; cat. no. K4868)
• Pix 6, 13 & 15: illustrations by, courtesy of and © Felipe Dávalos
• Pix 10 & 11: images from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 24th 2018

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