the american tradition


Little has survived that reveals the cartographic practices of the indigenous peoples of North and South America prior to the arrival of Europeans. We do not know what was destroyed of Aztec material culture by the Spaniards during the conquest and it is likely that the mediums upon which maps and other pictures were routinely depicted (cloth, bark, etc.) were both fragile and impermanent. In addition, it is probable that many maps were never meant to be more than temporary, such as route directions sketched on sand or dirt. In their accounts, Europeans sometimes described maps made by Amerindians, but for North America at least, nothing remains that was produced earlier than the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and this late date raises questions about how much is genuinely in the Native American tradition and how much is owed to European influence. No traces remain of a South American tradition and only a very few pre-Columbian Aztec maps escaped destruction. None of those are here at the John Carter Brown Library, but we do have some pieces that reflect characteristics of Mesoamerican peoples’ approach to geographic description.

5.  “The copy of a[n] antient picture kept by D. Carlos Siguenza in which is drawn & describ’d  the road the ancient Mexicans travell’d ”  In:  [Awnshawn and John Churchill].  A collection of voyages and travels,  London, 1704.

The map shown here presents the wanderings of the Aztecs that preceded their eventual settlement in Tenochtitlán (Mexico City).  It was copied from an original manuscript in the collection of Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), one of the first great intellectuals born in the Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain.  In 1668 Siguenza began the study of Aztec history and Toltec writings and developed a close friendship with Juan de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, descendant of Aztec aristocracy, who put at his disposal a rich collection of his ancestors’ documents, which Sigüenza inherited after his friend’s death.  When Sigüenza died much of the collection found its way to Lorenzo Boturini Bernaducci (1702-1753), historian, antiquary, and ethnographer of New Spain.
6. “Modo como metieron el agua des manantial.”  In: Juan de Tovar.  Historia de la benida de los Yndios.  Mexico, 1585.  Manuscript.

Tovar’s Historia contains detailed information about the rites and ceremonies of the Aztecs and is accompanied by fifty-one watercolors that illustrate aspects of native religion before the coming of the Spaniards.  The paintings were possibly done by an Indian artist who was drawing on direct recollection of destroyed works.  One of the illustrations concerns the actions of the leader, Auitzotl, who during a time of drought in the valley of Mexico decreed that the river Acuecuexco be diverted to the capital city of Tenochtitlán.  A canal was built for the purpose and this picture depicts the opening ceremony.  The blue, tree-like design in the lower half shows the course of the diverted river and is typical of Aztec representations of running water.  The cactus on the right represents Tenochtitlán.
7. Coyoacan Codex.  [Mexico, ca. 1700-before 1743].  Manuscript.

Pictorial manuscripts using indigenous techniques were still being made two hundred years after the arrival of the Spaniards.  Some, such as the codex shown here, were prepared as copies or, perhaps, forgeries of original property titles to be used as evidence in legal disputes.  By using native amatl paper derived from tree bark, and by combining watercolor paintings with glosses written in Nahuatl, the copyist attempted to imitate a sixteenth-century document.  This is a land claim prepared by residents of Maztapec, an Indian village whose boundaries were being challenged by the authorities.  The rectangles on the left represent the villagers’ fields, or milpas, while the trees on the right probably represent a boundary marker.
8. [Rio Panuco.]  Mexico, 1771.  Manuscript.

Even at the end of the eighteenth century, this map of the course of the Rio Panuco in the province of Sinaloa, Mexico, retains many pictorial elements that appear to be Native American in origin.  Although the flowing water symbol is not present, the snail-like mountain forms point to an earlier tradition.  Roads or paths are represented by parallel broken lines that are not a part of the European design legacy.  The Aztec symbol for a road was a trail of footprints; after the Conquest the footprints were often replaced by hoof prints.  It is likely that the hoof print symbol was further generalized into the parallel dotted lines shown on this map.
  Exhibition prepared by susan danforth.
on view in the reading room from January 27 to april 23, 2010