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Mexicolore contributors Alan Sandstrom and Pamela Sandstrom

Aztec Papermaking

We are most grateful to two of our Panel of Experts members, Professor Alan R Sandstrom and Dr. Pamela Effrein Sandstrom, for this invaluable introduction to the Mexica (Aztec) paper-making tradition. Their article is based in part on many years of their own field research in paper-making communities in Mexico, going back over 30 years...

Pic 1: Ritual specialists in contemporary Mexico cut and organise thousands of paper cuttings for a pilgrimage
Pic 1: Ritual specialists in contemporary Mexico cut and organise thousands of paper cuttings for a pilgrimage (Click on image to enlarge)

The ancient Aztecs valued paper almost more than any other substance. While most of us scarcely notice the importance of paper in our daily lives, by contrast, the Aztec people recognized it as a very special material that they associated with the most sacred aspects of their lives. They used it to make books concerning their religious beliefs, adorn statues of the deities and decorate temples, fashion priestly regalia, accompany the dead on their journey to the afterlife, dress sacrificial victims before putting them to death, make offerings to the deities in their pantheon, and divine the future.

Pic 2: Map of paper making villages tribute in paper to Tenochtitlan
Pic 2: Map of paper making villages tribute in paper to Tenochtitlan (Click on image to enlarge)

Following the conquest, examples of how the Aztecs used paper were recorded by Spanish chroniclers and the list was extensive. Paper was put to so many uses that the Aztec leaders soon ran out of it. In response, the emperor began to demand that conquered peoples throughout the empire send paper to the capital cities as tribute payment (pic 2). A 16th-century tribute list, the Codex Mendoza, names 42 cities or towns where paper was made and records that 480,000 sheets were received every year from just two of them. There must have been millions of sheets of paper flowing into the capital cities.

Pic 3: The Codex Mendoza records an annual tribute of 8,000 sheets or reams of paper from Huaxtepec; fol. 24 (detail)
Pic 3: The Codex Mendoza records an annual tribute of 8,000 sheets or reams of paper from Huaxtepec; fol. 24 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

One author, Victor Von Hagen, in writing about ancient Mexico, called this largest and most powerful empire in the New World “the paper-world of the Aztecs” (1944:77).
One example of how paper was used comes from the writings of the great 16th-century chronicler of Aztec life Bernardino de Sahagún who illustrates how important paper was to the Aztecs. He describes (1932[1575-80], bk. 2: 85-86) a great offering dedicated to their major deity, Huitzilopochtli, the sun god:-

Pic 4: Pantitlan (‘The Place of [Paper] Banners’), site of a ceremony dedicated to the rain god Tlaloc and other deities associated with mountains; Florentine Codex Bk 1
Pic 4: Pantitlan (‘The Place of [Paper] Banners’), site of a ceremony dedicated to the rain god Tlaloc and other deities associated with mountains; Florentine Codex Bk 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

“They made still another ornament to honor this god, and which consisted of an enormous piece of paper, twenty fathoms (six feet each) long by one in width [144 feet long by six feet wide], and one finger thick. The paper was carried by a number of strong men in front of the image [of Huitzilopochtli].... [They] carried [the image] like a litter with the long paper always in front.... Arriving at the foot of the temple steps,... [t]hose who carried the large paper again mounted ahead of the statue, and to prevent tearing it, those who climbed first at once began rolling the paper up with great care.... As soon as the statue had reached the top... they laid in front of the platform the roll of paper securely tied, to prevent its unrolling.”

Pic 5: Helpers arrange some of the sacred paper images to be taken on a pilgrimage to the summit of the sacred mountain Postectli
Pic 5: Helpers arrange some of the sacred paper images to be taken on a pilgrimage to the summit of the sacred mountain Postectli (Click on image to enlarge)

It was the overwhelming reverence the Aztecs had for the substance that led them to offer such huge amounts of paper to their most important deity.
It is not known when papermaking was invented in Mesoamerica, but it was widespread when the Spaniards arrived, indicating that the craft is ancient. Only one eyewitness description survives of how the Aztecs made paper, offered by the naturalist Francisco Hernández (1959 [1571-76], vol. 1:83-84) who wrote 50 years after the conquest:-

Pic 6: The opening paragraph in reference to the ‘paper tree’ (Hernández); a modern-day paper maker beating bark fibre paste
Pic 6: The opening paragraph in reference to the ‘paper tree’ (Hernández); a modern-day paper maker beating bark fibre paste (Click on image to enlarge)

“[The amaquahuitl, or paper tree] grows in the mountains of Tepoztlán where one can frequently see swarming multitudes of workers making paper from it.... They cut only the thick branches, leaving the shoots, and soak them in rivers or streams overnight. On the following day they tear off the bark and, after removing the exterior cuticle, they spread out the inner bark with blows from a flat stone which has a surface furrowed with grooves.... [L]ater it is cut into pieces which, beaten again with another flatter stone, are easily joined together into a single sheet which is then polished.”

Pic 7: ‘Texcalamacoztli’* - ‘the only known Aztec drawing of the paper tree’ from the Badianus Manuscript of 1532 (pl. 68, detail); examples of Ficus petiolaris today
Pic 7: ‘Texcalamacoztli’* - ‘the only known Aztec drawing of the paper tree’ from the Badianus Manuscript of 1532 (pl. 68, detail); examples of Ficus petiolaris today (Click on image to enlarge)

This brief description leaves out many details of papermaking technology and does not identify the species of tree that was used. Analysis of the few fragments of paper from the 16th century surviving throughout Mesoamerica or in European collections reveals that it was made from fibers of fig (genus Ficus) and mulberry (genus Morus) trees, both of which belong to the family Moraceae, or from leaves of the maguey (genus Agave, family Amaryllidaceae) although only a single example of the latter was found. The Aztecs called their barkpaper amatl - the same word they used for the fig tree from which most of the paper was made.

Pic 8: Ritual specialist Silveria Hernández Hernández cuts paper images as her husband helps fold paper sheets
Pic 8: Ritual specialist Silveria Hernández Hernández cuts paper images as her husband helps fold paper sheets (Click on image to enlarge)

But if paper was so important to the Aztecs (and other groups in Mesoamerica), one has to wonder, Why has so little of it survived until today? There are two answers. First, paper disintegrates unless it is carefully stored and cared for, and second, the Spaniards systematically destroyed all of the paper they could find because it was so closely associated with Native American religious practices. They made it illegal for any indigenous person to possess paper much less produce it, and so the inhabitants of the papermaking centers ceased their work. Within decades the paper world of the Aztecs appeared to come to an end.

Pic 9: Silveria Hernández Hernández cuts the image of a disease-causing wind spirit
Pic 9: Silveria Hernández Hernández cuts the image of a disease-causing wind spirit (Click on image to enlarge)

But did it? In 1900, an American anthropologist named Frederick Starr was exploring the remote Sierra Norte de Puebla on horseback and discovered Otomí people high in the mountains who were making paper in the traditional way. He was the first outsider to witness the craft since the 16th century. Following Starr’s discovery, the famed American papermaker and historian Dard Hunter traveled to the Otomí community where paper was being made, and published the following description (1927:15-16):-

Pic 10: Ritual specialists cut paper images for use during a pilgrimage to the sacred mountain San Gerónimo. The paper figures on the wooden box represent the earth
Pic 10: Ritual specialists cut paper images for use during a pilgrimage to the sacred mountain San Gerónimo. The paper figures on the wooden box represent the earth (Click on image to enlarge)

“The bark of these [fig and mulberry] trees used by the Otomís is gathered in the autumn when full of sap. After the bark is well dried it is placed in a pool of running water, which washes away the parenchyma or glutinous substance, leaving the pure fibres. These are then made into bundles and laid in a stream where the material receives a further cleansing. It is then boiled with ashes, or in the liquid... in which corn [kernels, for tortillas] have been boiled. A large earthen pot of native construction, heated over an open fire, is used in boiling the bark.

Pic 11: Helpers cut paper figures prior to a pilgrimage. The renowned Otomí ritual specialist known as Evaristo leans against the door in the background
Pic 11: Helpers cut paper figures prior to a pilgrimage. The renowned Otomí ritual specialist known as Evaristo leans against the door in the background (Click on image to enlarge)

“After washing, the fibres are beaten with wooden clubs or mallets until they have separated and are in a pulpy condition. When the material has been thoroughly macerated it is made into a paste and spread over a board into a thin sheet with the fingers; and then gently beaten with a small stone, which mats the fibres, forming a homogeneous sheet of paper. The sheet, still upon the board, is then dried in the sun. When it is dry it can easily be removed, the board causing the underside of the paper to be smooth, with an almost glossy appearance.”

Pic 12: Helpers and ritual specialists rest at the foot of Postectli mountain making final arrangements of paper figures that will be carried to the summit
Pic 12: Helpers and ritual specialists rest at the foot of Postectli mountain making final arrangements of paper figures that will be carried to the summit (Click on image to enlarge)

This description matches the one provided by Francisco Hernández and is probably very close to the way the ancient Aztecs produced paper. To summarize, it is made by releasing fibers from the inner bark of certain trees, felting them together with a flat stone, and then drying the resulting mat. Modern papermaking employs a different technology in which fibers - mostly from wood pulp but also from finer substances like cotton - are separated and suspended in a solution. The solution is then passed through a screen and the fibers form a mat that is peeled off and dried. The resulting sheet can be polished or treated in several ways depending on the type of paper desired.

Pic 13: Encarnación (Cirilo) Téllez Hernández separates paper images of disease-causing winds
Pic 13: Encarnación (Cirilo) Téllez Hernández separates paper images of disease-causing winds (Click on image to enlarge)

In addition to the Otomí people of the Sierra Norte de Puebla, anthropologists later confirmed that Nahua of the Gulf Coast region, particularly in villages surrounding Chicontepec, Veracruz, also continue the ancient craft of papermaking. But Starr observed more than papermaking during his expedition; he found evidence of how the people used the paper. He glimpsed shrines in which altars were stacked high with human and animal figures cut from the homemade sheets. It was his remarkable discovery that people - despite hundreds of years of persecution - were still using paper as a central feature of religious rituals.

Pic 14: Pamela Effrein Sandstrom and Alan R. Sandstrom interview ritual specialist Encarnación (Cirilo) Téllez Hernández as he cuts paper figures
Pic 14: Pamela Effrein Sandstrom and Alan R. Sandstrom interview ritual specialist Encarnación (Cirilo) Téllez Hernández as he cuts paper figures (Click on image to enlarge)

Since that time, several anthropologists have investigated the paper world of the people living in this region of eastern Mexico (Sandstrom and Sandstrom 1986; Dow 1986; Sandstrom 1991, 2001). We now know that the paper is still produced by hand so that religious specialists can cut figures from it to use in their curing and crop fertility rituals. These cut-paper images represent spirits in the Native American pantheon, and they are arranged on elaborate altars to receive heart-felt offerings of food, drink, cornmeal, tobacco, incense, and music. The remnants of such altars are the same as those Starr found in his quest for paper more than a century ago.

Pic 15: Ritual specialists cut paper images in preparation for the Palaxtepetl pilgrimage
Pic 15: Ritual specialists cut paper images in preparation for the Palaxtepetl pilgrimage (Click on image to enlarge)

We also know that hundreds of thousands of contemporary Otomí, Nahua, Tepehua, and Totonac peoples of the region practice this religious tradition. As a reminder of the ancient roots of the ritual use of paper, archaeologists recently discovered a cache of offerings while excavating the patio of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City (Barrera, et al. 2001). The stone box they unearthed contained a priest’s costume, batons of command, and placards with the image of a rain deity painted in rubber - all made from prehispanic Aztec barkpaper.

Pic 16: Otomí craftsman Humberto Trejo González demonstrates the traditional art of bark paper making at the Museum of Mankind, London, 1992. Also present is world expert on Mexican crafts Chloe Sayer
Pic 16: Otomí craftsman Humberto Trejo González demonstrates the traditional art of bark paper making at the Museum of Mankind, London, 1992. Also present is world expert on Mexican crafts Chloe Sayer (Click on image to enlarge)

As early as the 1930s, increased availability of inexpensive mass-produced paper posed a new threat to the few families who continued to pursue the traditional craft. It appeared that despite the remarkable survival of papermaking over the centuries, cheap commercial paper would finally spell its doom. However, beginning probably in the 1960s, Nahua people from the state of Guerrero began creating colorful paintings on sheets of Otomí barkpaper for sale to tourists. The paintings are called amates, and they have proven to be one of the most successful innovations in tourist art anywhere in the world (Good Eshelman 1988). The demand for traditionally produced barkpaper has remained high, insuring the survival of this most ancient craft.

Pic 17: Ritual specialist Catalina Martínez Hernández prepares images of seed spirits that will be stored in a sacred wooden box on her home altar
Pic 17: Ritual specialist Catalina Martínez Hernández prepares images of seed spirits that will be stored in a sacred wooden box on her home altar (Click on image to enlarge)

Authors’ note on the location photos
In the village where we conducted field research, papermaking is no longer practiced. Ritual specialists purchase manufactured paper in the market for use in their rituals. Photos of Nahua and Otomí papermakers can be found in Von Hagen (1944) and in the many sources discussing Aztec papermaking cited in Sandstrom and Sandstrom (1986). The photos accompanying this essay depicting the ritual use of paper by contemporary Nahua and Otomí ritual specialists were taken by Alan R. Sandstrom and/or Pamela Effrein Sandstrom in the municipios of Ixhuatlán de Madero or Chicontepec, Veracruz, Mexico, over the years spanning 1985 to 2007.

Pic 18: Ritual specialist Silveria Hernández Hernández cuts paper images of disease-causing spirits prior to curing a patient
Pic 18: Ritual specialist Silveria Hernández Hernández cuts paper images of disease-causing spirits prior to curing a patient (Click on image to enlarge)

* NOTE: Texcalamacoztli literally means ‘Yellow cliff/rock paper’. Its botanical name is Ficus petiolaris, commonly known today in Mexico as the amatl/amate amarillo and more widely as the ‘tree-of-the-rocks’ - note that in the illustration in the Badianus Manuscript (also known as the Aztec Herbal of 1532) the herbalist has used heavy lines surrounding the roots to depict rocks. Both the yellow coloured bark and the tree itself also became known as amacoztic, and Hernández gives a third name for the tree, tepeamatl or ‘mountain-paper (tree)’. But it was only one of several trees used in ancient Mexico to provide paper.
The quote is from Victor von Hagen.

Pic 19: Cruz Hernández Hernández cuts paper figures representing disease-causing wind spirits
Pic 19: Cruz Hernández Hernández cuts paper figures representing disease-causing wind spirits (Click on image to enlarge)

Works Cited
• Barrera Rivera, José Álvaro, Ma. de Lourdes Gallardo Parrodi, and Aurora Montúfor López. 2001. “La Ofrenda 102 del Templo Mayor.” Arqueología Mexicana no. 48:70-77
• Dow, James. 1986. The Shaman’s Touch: Otomi Indian Symbolic Healing. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press
• Good Eshelman, Catharine. 1988. Haciendo la lucha: Arte y comercio nahuas de Guerrero. México, D.F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica
• Hernández, Francisco. 1959 [1571-76]. Historia natural de Nueva España, vol. 1. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional de México
• Hunter, Dard. 1927. Primitive Papermaking. Chillicothe, Ohio: Mountain House Press
• Sahagún, Bernardino de. 1932 [1575-80]. A History of Ancient Mexico. Translated by Fanny R. Bandelier from the Spanish version of Carlos María de Bustamente. Nashville: Fisk University Press
• Sandstrom, Alan R. 1991. Corn is Our Blood: Culture and Ethnic Identity in a Contemporary Aztec Indian Village. Civilization of the American Indian Series, vol. 206. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press; Internet Archive edition freely available at https://archive.org/details/cornisourbloodcu00sand
• Sandstrom, Alan R. 2001. “Papermaking.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America. Davíd Carrasco, editor in chief; John K. Chance and Elizabeth Boone, area editors, vol. 2, pp. 442-43. New York: Oxford University Press
• Sandstrom, Alan R., and Pamela Effrein Sandstrom. 1986. Traditional Papermaking and Paper Cult Figures of Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press; Internet Archive edition freely available at http://archive.org/details/traditionalpape00sand
• Starr, Frederick. 1978[1908]. In Indian Mexico: A Narrative of Travel and Labor. Chicago: Forbes and Co.; reprint, New York: AMS Press
• Von Hagen, Victor W. 1944. The Aztec and Maya Papermakers. New York: J. J. Augustin.

Pic 20: Close-up of a paper figure that will be carried on a pilgrimage to the summit of Palaxtepetl
Pic 20: Close-up of a paper figure that will be carried on a pilgrimage to the summit of Palaxtepetl (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 5, 8-15, 17-20: photos by, courtesy of and thanks to Alan R Sandstrom and Pamela Effrein Sandstrom
• Pic 2: Map drawn from the notes of Victor Wolfgang von Hagen by Antonio Sotomayor, scanned from our own copy of The Aztec and Maya Papermakers by Victor W. von Hagen, Dover Publications, New York, 1999 [1944]
• Pic 3: Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), scanned from our own copy of the 1938 James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London
• Pic 4: Image 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
• Pic 6 (top): Image scanned from our own copy of Historia de las Plantas de Nueva España by Francisco Hernandez, vol. 1, Imprenta Universitaria, Mexico, 1942 [1571-76]; (bottom) photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 7 (left): Image from the Badianus Manuscript/’An Aztec Herbal of 1552’ scanned from our own copy of the facsimile edition (The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940); (right): photos from Botanic Wonders website - http://www.botanicwonders.com/Feature-Ficus-petiolaris.html
• Pic 16: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 26th 2016

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