Aztec Empire maps

Mexica maps
January 11, 2021 – 05:44 pm
New map of the Aztec Empire

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Radek Koncewicz: Obviously there are plenty of maps showing the Aztec empire, but did the Mexica themselves ever use maps? They had plenty of Amatl works and a large empire that needed to be traversed on foot, were maps something they came to use as well? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Codex Xolotl, p9 (Click on image to enlarge)

Yes, they did use maps. The sad thing is that none of the pre-Columbian ones have survived. Even so, the evidence for them is very strong: after all, the Spanish conquerors themselves admitted using local native maps on their journeys of conquest extending from Mexico - and Moctezuma was reported tracking the location of Hernán Cortés and his men via a series of painted maps drawn by his spies/ambassadors. Indeed, when Cortés asked Moctezuma for information on ports along the Gulf Coast, Moctezuma gave him a map showing the location of all the coastal rivers and coves...

Codex Xolotl, p11 (Click on image to enlarge)

You’re right - controlling and administering an empire as large as the Aztec one would have been well nigh impossible without maps of some kind. Maps of course were just one of several different kinds of Mexica ‘books’, that included (ruling) family histories, calendars, day/year ‘books of fate’ and tribute lists.

Mind you, their maps were designed very differently to our modern maps; the Aztecs went for clarity, orderliness and (often cosmic) relationships, so there was no attempt to present perspective, nor natural appearance. Here we show one of the maps drawn by local scribes AFTER the Conquest - the Codex Xolotl - and it’s clearly based on ancient styles and principles. Towns and natural features (lakes, rivers, mountains...) are all correctly positioned, but old ideas are very much still present. Glyphs are used to ‘name’ places and important individuals are added. East is shown at the top (for the direction of sunrise) and West at the bottom, pointing towards the earth that ‘swallows’ the Sun every evening...

Merchants travelling, Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

After the Conquest, the Spanish recruited native scribes to map out their newly conquered territories and boundaries, knowing that the locals possessed the necessary skills, conventions (such as glyphs to show place names) and familiarity with the landscape and terrain to do so accurately.

For an idea of the complexity and multiple layers/meanings of pre-Columbian ‘maps’, see the Ask Us entry on the title page of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer (follow link below...)

Info from:-
• Aztec Art by Esther Pasztory (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1983)
• Painting the Conquest by Serge Gruzinski (Flammarion, Paris, 1992)

Image sources
• Images from the Codex Xolotl from
• Image from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994

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