Tarascan state

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Tarascan State
Irechikwa Ts'intsuntsani
Location of Tarascan
Common languagesPurépecha
• 1300–1350 (first)
• 1520–1530 (last)
Tangáxuan II
• Established
• Conquered
1450[1]75,000 km2 (29,000 sq mi)
• 1519[2]
Succeeded by
Viceroyalty of New Spain
Today part ofMexico

The Purépecha State, also known by the term Tarascan State, was a polity in pre-Columbian Mexico. Its territory roughly covered the geographic area of the present-day Mexican state of Michoacán, as well as parts of Jalisco and Guanajuato. At the time of the Spanish conquest, it was the second-largest state in Mesoamerica.[3]

The state was founded in the early 14th century and lost its independence to the Spanish in 1530. In 1543 it officially became the governorship of Michoacán, from the Nahuatl exonym for the Purépecha state, Michhuahcān from michhuah (possessor of fish), and -cān (place of) and means "place of fishers."

The Purépecha state was constituted of a network of tributary systems and gradually became increasingly centralized, under the control of the ruler of the state called the cazonci. The Purépecha capital was located at Tzintzuntzan on the banks of Lake Pátzcuaro, and, according to Purépecha oral tradition was founded by the first cazonci Tariácuri and dominated by his lineage, the "Wakusecha" ("Eagles" in Purépecha language); however, the largest city may have been Angamuco, extensive ruins of which were discovered in 2012 using LiDAR technology.

The Purépecha were contemporary with and an enemy of the Aztec Empire, against which it fought many wars. The Purépecha empire blocked Aztec expansion to the northwest, and the Purépecha fortified and patrolled their frontiers with the Aztecs, possibly developing the first truly territorial state of Mesoamerica.

Due to its relative isolation within Mesoamerica, the Purépecha state had many cultural traits completely distinct from those of the Mesoamerican cultural group. It is particularly noteworthy for being among the few Mesoamerican civilizations to use metal for tools and ornamentation, and even weapons.[4]

A Tarascan incense burner showing a deity with a "Tlaloc headdress", 1350–1521 CE.


In Purépecha, language of the Purépecha people, the name of the state was Irechikwa Ts'intsuntsani, "The Kingdom of Ts'intsuntsani" referring to the capital Tzintzuntzan, "the place of hummingbirds".[citation needed]

Ethnic groups[edit]

The state included different groups, primarily Purépecha people and additionally Matlazincas, Tecos, Mazahuas, Otomíes, Chontales, Nahuas.[5]

The people of the Tarascan empire were mostly of Purépecha ethnic affiliation but also included other ethnic groups such as the Nahua, Otomi, Matlatzinca and Chichimec. These ethnic groups were gradually assimilated into the Purépecha majority group.

Geography and lithic occupation[edit]

Islands in Lake Pátzcuaro, viewed from the top of Janitzio island.

The territory that would eventually form the setting of the Tarascan state is the high volcanic region constituting the western extension of the Mexican Mesa Central, in between two large rivers: the Lerma and Balsas Rivers. Including temperate, subtropical and tropical climate zones, it is dominated by Cenozoic volcanic mountains and lake basins above 2000 meters (6500 feet) altitude, but also includes lower land in the southwestern coastal regions. Most common soil types in the central plateau are young volcanic andosols, luvisols and less fertile acrisols. The vegetation is mainly pine, pine-oak and fir. Human occupation has focused on the lake basins, which are abundant in resources. In the north, near the Lerma river, there are obsidian resources and thermal springs. The Tarascan state was centered around the Lake Pátzcuaro basin.

History of the Tarascan state[edit]

The archaeological site of Tzintzuntzan, capital of the Tarascan state

Early archaeological evidence[edit]

The Tarascan area has been inhabited at least since the early Pre-classic period. Early lithic evidence from before 2500 BC, like fluted points and stone utensils are found at some megafauna kill sites. The earliest radio-carbon dates of archeological sites fall around 1200 BC. The best known early Pre-classic culture of Michoacán was the Chupícuaro culture. Most Chupícuaro sites are found on lake islands which can be seen as a sign of it having traits relating it to the later Tarascan cultural patterns. In the early Classic period, ballcourts and other artifacts demonstrate a Teotihuacan influence in the Michoacán region.

Ethnohistorical sources[edit]

The most useful ethnohistorical source has been the Relación de Michoacán [es],[6] written around 1540 by the Franciscan priest Fray Jeronimo de Acalá, containing translated and transcribed narratives from Tarascan noblemen. This Relación contains parts of the "official Tarascan history" as carried down through oral tradition: one part focuses on Tarascan state religion, the second on Tarascan society, and the last on Tarascan history and the Spanish conquest. Unfortunately the first part is only partly preserved. Other sources include a number of small pictorial manuscripts, the best known being the Lienzo de Jucutacuto.[citation needed]

Foundation and expansion[edit]


Tariácuri (~1300~1350)
Hiquingaje (~1350–?)
Hiripan (?–~1430)
Tangáxuan I (1430–1454)
Tzitzipandáquare (1454–1479)
Zuangua (1479–1520)
Tangáxuan II (1520–1530)

Colonial rulers
Corregidor de Michoacan

Pedro de Arellano (1530–1543)

Governors of Michoacan

Francisco Taríacuri (1543–1545)
Antonio Huitziméngari (1545)–1562

Fourth yacata pyramid on the south end of the line in Tzintzuntzan.
Chakmul. Cultures of the West Chamber. National Museum of Anthropology (Mexico)

In the late classic at least two non-Purépecha ethnic groups lived around Lake Pátzcuaro: Nahuatl speakers in Jarácuaro [sv], and some Chichimecan cultures on the northern banks, with the Nahua population being the second largest.

According to the Relación de Michoacán a visionary leader of the Purépecha named Tariácuri decided to gather the communities around Lake Pátzcuaro into one strong state. Around 1300 he undertook the first conquests and installed his sons Hiripan and Tangáxoan as lords of Ihuatzio and Tzintzuntzan respectively, himself ruling from Pátzcuari city. By the death of Taríacuri (around 1350), his lineage was in control of all the major centers around Lake Pátzcuaro. His son Hiripan continued the expansion into the area surrounding Lake Cuitzeo.

Hiripan and later his brother Tangáxuan I began to institutionalize the tributary system and consolidate the political unity of the empire. They created an administrative bureaucracy and divided responsibilities of and tributes from the conquered territories between lords and nobles. In the following years first the Tarascan Sierra and then the Balsas River was incorporated into the increasingly centralized state.

Under the rule of cazonci Tzitzipandáquare a number of regions were conquered, only to be lost again by rebellions or strategic retreats when confronted with Aztec expansion. In 1460 the Tarascan state reached the Pacific coast at Zacatula, advanced into the Toluca Valley, and also, on the northern rim, reached into the present day state of Guanajuato. In the 1470s Aztecs under Axayacatl captured a series of Tarascan frontier towns and closed in on the Tarascan heartland, but were eventually defeated. This experience prompted the Tarascan ruler to further fortify the Aztec frontier with military centers along the border, such as at Cutzamala. He also allowed Otomies and Matlatzincas who had been driven out of their homelands by the Aztecs to settle in the border area under the condition that they took part in the defense of the Tarascan lands. From 1480 the Aztec ruler Ahuitzotl intensified the conflict with the Tarascans. He supported attacks on Tarascan lands by other ethnic groups allied with or subjugated to the Aztecs such as Matlatzincas, Chontales, and Cuitlatecs. The Tarascans, led by the cazonci Zuangua, repelled the attacks but further Tarascan expansion was halted until the arrival of the Spaniards two years into the rule of the last cazonci of an independent Tarascan state, Tangáxuan II.

Between 1480 and 1510, the Tarascan State occupied parts of present day Colima and Jalisco in order to secure Nitratine mines in the region. Throughout the occupation, the people's of Colima, Sayula, Zapotlán, Tapalpa, and Autlán resisted Tarascan rule in the Saltpeter War. By the end of the 30 year long occupation, the Tarascan state was forced out of the area permanently.


Like most Mesoamerican cultures, the Purépecha were polytheists who worshipped a large array of deities. Chiefly was Curicaveri/Kurikaweri, the god of the sun.[7]


Pre-Columbian coyote statuette attributed to the Tarascan culture,[8] likely a representation of the coyote god Uitzimángari.[9] Height: 43.5 cm (17 in).

West states, "The Tarascans and their neighbors near the Pacific coast were the foremost metallurgists of pre-Conquest Mexico." This included copper, silver and gold, where Michoacán and Colima provided placer gold, Tamazula provided silver, and the La Huacana area provided copper. Copper-silver alloy artefacts found in the palaces and graves of Tzintzuntzan include rodelas, armlets, bracelets and cups. Copper bells made from lost-wax casting were used in religious ceremonies from 650 AD to at least 1200. This was followed by copper-gold and copper-silver items such as discs, bracelets, diadems and masks. Other items were made from bronze, including needles, fishhooks, tweezers, axeheads, and awls. The religious national treasures were looted by the Spanish during the Conquest from Lake Patzcuaro graves and storerooms.[10]

It has been speculated that Tarascan metallurgy was developed due to contact with South American cultures.[11]

Fall of the Tarascan state[edit]

Bronze tools and bells on display at the site museum of Tzintzuntzan.

After hearing about the fall of the Aztec Empire, cazonci Tangáxuan II sent emissaries to the Spanish victors. A few Spaniards went with them to Tzintzuntzan where they were presented to the ruler and gifts were exchanged. They returned with samples of gold and Cortés' interest in the Tarascan state was awakened. In 1522 a Spanish force under the leadership of Cristóbal de Olid was sent into Tarascan territory and arrived at Tzintzuntzan within days. The Tarascan army numbered many thousands, perhaps as many as 100,000[citation needed], but at the crucial moment they chose not to fight.[12] Tangáxuan submitted to the Spanish administration, but for his cooperation was allowed a large degree of autonomy. This resulted in a strange arrangement where both Cortés and Tangáxuan considered themselves rulers of Michoacán for the following years: the population of the area paid tribute to them both. When the Spanish found out that Tangáxuan was still de facto ruler of his empire but only supplied the Spanish with a small part of the resources extracted from the population they sent the ruthless conquistador Nuño de Guzmán, who allied himself with a Tarascan noble Don Pedro Panza Cuinierángari, and the cazonci was executed on February 14, 1530.[13][14][15][16] A period of violence and turbulence began. During the next decades Tarascan puppet rulers were installed by the Spanish government, but when Nuño de Guzman had been disgraced and recalled to Spain, Bishop Vasco de Quiroga was sent to the area to clean up. He rapidly gained the respect and friendship of the natives who ceased hostilities towards the Spanish hegemony.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Blanford, Adam Jared (2014). "Rethinking Tarascan Political and Spatial Organization" (PDF). Anthropology Graduate Theses & Dissertations. University of Colorado Boulder: 6. S2CID 147339315. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2020-02-13. Retrieved 2020-07-03. By A.D. 1450, the Tarascan Uacúsecha were leaders of an empire that spanned 75,000 square kilometers of west Mexico
  2. ^ "Welcome to The Human Past – Student Study Guide Website".
  3. ^ "Julie Adkins, "Mesoamerican Anomaly? The Pre-Conquest Tarascan State", Robert V. Kemper, Faculty papers, Southern Methodist University. On line". smu.edu. Archived from the original on 19 December 2009. Retrieved 19 April 2018.
  4. ^ Malmstrom, Vincent H. (1 January 1995). "Geographical Origins of the Tarascans". Geographical Review. 85 (1): 31–40. doi:10.2307/215553. JSTOR 215553.
  5. ^ Pollard, Helen Perlstein (1980). "Central Places and Cities: A Consideration of the Protohistoric Tarascan State". American Antiquity. 45 (4): 677–696. doi:10.2307/280141. JSTOR 280141. This was the Tarascan state [...] peopled by ethnic groups of matlazincas, tecos, mazahuas, otomíes, chontales, nahuas and primarily tarascos
  6. ^ Relación de Michoacán, complete text (in Spanish)
  7. ^ "Tarascan Tribe Gods & Symbols". study.com.
  8. ^ American Museum of Natural History.
  9. ^ Covarrubias, p. 103.
  10. ^ West, Robert. Early Silver Mining in New Spain, 1531–1555 (1997). Bakewell, Peter (ed.). Mines of Silver and Gold in the Americas. Aldershot: Variorum, Ashgate Publishing Limited. pp. 45–48, 58–59.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ Anawalt, Patricia Rieff. "Ancient Cultural Contacts between Ecuador, West Mexico, and the American Southwest: Clothing Similarities." Latin American Antiquity 3, no. 2 (1992): 121.
  12. ^ Gorenstein (1993, xiv).
  13. ^ David Marley (2008). Wars of the Americas: A Chronology of Armed Conflict in the Western Hemisphere, 1492 to the Present. ABC-CLIO. p. 43. ISBN 978-1-59884-100-8.
  14. ^ James Krippner-Martínez (1 November 2010). Rereading the Conquest: Power, Politics, and the History of Early Colonial Michoac‡n, Mexico, 1521–1565. Penn State Press. p. 55. ISBN 978-0-271-03940-4.
  15. ^ Bernardino Verástique (1 January 2010). Michoacán and Eden: Vasco de Quiroga and the Evangelization of Western Mexico. University of Texas Press. p. 124. ISBN 978-0-292-77380-6.
  16. ^ See Gorenstein (1993, xv). According to some other sources Tangáxuan II was dragged behind a horse and then burned.


External links[edit]