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What happened to the Culhuas?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Gabrilelle Racine: Something confuses me - it is said that the Mexica paid tribute to the Culhua after settling on their island, but then I also read that Tezozomoc conquered the state of Culhuacan and that the Mexica helped. And also, Acamapichtli is said to have married Ilancueitl, a Toltec-Culhua princess. What happened to the Culhuas? And what were the Aztec-Tepanec-Toltec relations at the time of Acamapichtli? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Chicomoztoc, ‘The Place of the Seven Caves’, from the Historia Tolteca Chichimeca
Pic 1: Chicomoztoc, ‘The Place of the Seven Caves’, from the Historia Tolteca Chichimeca (Click on image to enlarge)

As you will know, the first stage in the story of the Aztec/Mexica people - the couple of centuries of wandering through the country searching for a new homeland - seems full of tales of rivalries and disputes, battles (often defeats), intrigue and trickery, and differing accounts, so, in Frances Berdan’s words ‘it is now difficult to separate fact from myth, and to establish clearly many details.’
We all know that Aztlan was their birthplace. From there they travelled to another mythical place, Chicomoztoc (‘Seven Caves’) which served as a kind of ‘jumping-off spot’ for several nomadic tribes - all Nahua, ie speakers of the Nahuatl language - as they headed south-east in turn to populate the Basin of Mexico. The Aztecs appear to have been the last to leave, with the inevitable result that on their arrival in central Mexico the best land had already been taken. They were beaten to it by the Tlaxcalans, Xochimilca, Chalca, Tepaneca, Culhua, Tlahuica and others...

Pic 2: The Codex Aubin records battles between the Mexica and the Tepanecs and Culhua in the year 2-Reed (1299 CE); folio 19
Pic 2: The Codex Aubin records battles between the Mexica and the Tepanecs and Culhua in the year 2-Reed (1299 CE); folio 19 (Click on image to enlarge)

Trying to keep things simple, three major groupings settled in the Basin (the fourth group would be the Mexica):-
• The Chichimecs (it’s complicated, since this was also a term that covered ALL the migrating Nahua peoples)
• The Acolhua (who headed east to Tetzcoco)
• The (older) Tepanecs (who went west to Atzcapotzalco).
The first two of these were initially the stronger (they were also more closely related).
Temporarily encamped around the springs at the base of the hill at Chapultepec (none of the already settled tribes wanted to grant them any territory), the Mexica came under threat from a coalition of Tepanec people from Atzapotzalco and neighbours of theirs, the Culhua people (proud of their Toltec heritage, prized by all the Nahuas) from Culhuacan. Both tribes wanted to turf the Aztecs out and thus to regain control of the springs, which separated their two communities.

Pic 3: The war on the Xochimilcans. Codex Durán
Pic 3: The war on the Xochimilcans. Codex Durán (Click on image to enlarge)

Defeated (again), the Mexica, in desperation, begged the Culhua for protection, and were pushed out onto the barren land at Tizaapan, on condition that they acted as mercenaries for the Culhua in local inter-tribal disputes (follow the second link below to learn more of how they brought back the ears and noses of Xochimilcan warriors in one gory episode!)
Showing skilful tactics reminiscent of European kings using marriages to form political alliances, some Mexica had intermarried with the Culhua nobility, raising their status accordingly (they even began calling themselves the ‘Culhua-Mexica’) - but this was all thrown to the winds, and lead to their abrupt departure from Tizaapan, when in 1323 they sacrificed a Culhua princess (follow the first link below for that story...), provoking the fury of the Culhua chieftain who had granted and then lost his daughter.

Pic 4: Acamapichtli, from the Tovar Manuscript, fol. 93
Pic 4: Acamapichtli, from the Tovar Manuscript, fol. 93 (Click on image to enlarge)

It was at this stage that the Mexica ended their wanderings, forced to live on swampy islands ‘strategically placed between the three most important peoples - the Culhua to the south, the Tepanecs to the west, and the Acolhua on the eastern side of the basin’ (Richard Townsend).
Ever seeking ways to advance from being the lowest on the tribal ladder, following the death of their leader Tenoch in 1375, the Mexica sent a delegation to the Culhua, asking for the new Mexica leader Acamapichtli to be tlatoani (ruler) of both tribes. Conveniently, he was of mixed Mexica-Culhua descent AND had connections with leading Acolhua families on the eastern side of the ‘Valley of Mexico’ What’s more, he brought with him a noble Culhua bride (some think it was actually his mother) named Ilancueitl. This time the tactic worked. ‘The Mexica had managed to turn themselves into an independent entity at last by making friends with their on-again, off-again enemies, the people of Culhuacan’ (Camilla Townsend).

Pic 5: Tezozomoc (L) and his funeral (R); Codex Xólotl
Pic 5: Tezozomoc (L) and his funeral (R); Codex Xólotl (Click on image to enlarge)

Under Acamapichtli, the Mexica were obliged to pay tribute to the expanding city-state of the Tepanecs, under their rather tyrannical leader Tezozomoc (who ruled for fifty years, from 1371). It was Tezozomoc’s ambition to conquer the Acolhua kingdom of Tetzcoco, that had previously risen against the Tepanecs under Ixtlilxóchitl. In the end Tetzcoco was captured by the Tepanecs - and given as a reward to the Mexica, who were now in the commanding position of being allies of the Tepanecs and Atzcapotzalco.

Pic 6: The war on Atzcapotzalco. Tovar Manuscript, fol. 101
Pic 6: The war on Atzcapotzalco. Tovar Manuscript, fol. 101 (Click on image to enlarge)

On Tezozomoc’s death the Mexica saw the chance, under tlatoani Itzcoatl, to rise against the Tepanecs, and through a famous (‘Triple’) Alliance between city-states Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco and Tlacopan (later named Tacuba by the Spanish), they won. The once powerful city-state of Culhuacan was ‘reduced to subsidiary status’ (Camilla Townsend).
And the rest, as they say, is history, as the stage was now set for the final, imperial, stage in the Aztecs’ long saga...

NOTE: Culhua is sometimes written as Colhua; Acolhua should not be confused with Culhuacan; Atzcapotzalco is sometimes written Azcapotzalco.

Recommended sources:-
The Aztecs of Central Mexico: an Imperial Society by Frances F. Berdan, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1982
The Aztecs by Richard F. Townsend (Revised edition), Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2000
Fifth Sun: a New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend, Oxford University Press, 2019.

Image sources:-
• Pix 1 & 5: images from Wikimedia Commons
• Pic 2: image from Wikipedia (‘Aubin Codex’)
• Pic 3: image scanned from our own copy of Códice Durán - Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de Tierra Firme, Arrendedora Internacional, Mexico City, 1990
• Pix 4 & 6: images scanned from our copy of the Manuscrit Tovar, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1972.

‘The story of the Mexica sacrifice of a Colhua princess’

‘The last page of the Codex Boturini’

‘The Aztecs have been called many things...’

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