Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Historically, urbanized empires tended to see non-urbanized people as…less. They were less civilized, less sophisticated, and less capable of achieving the greatness of urban civilization. The Romans treated Germanic tribes like this, considering them barbarians. The Chinese treated Mongol tribes like this, considering them barbarians. In pre-contact Mexico, the Aztec Empire had its own set of ''barbarians''. They called them the Chichimeca.
Like other so-called barbarian groups in history, the Chichimeca were identified not by their shared identity, but by an urbanized empire that labeled them in a largely pejorative sense. Really, the Chichimeca people were not a single ethnic, linguistic, or cultural group, but a whole collection of different nations lumped together by the Aztecs. So, who were the Chichimeca people, really? As a set of unique cultures without written languages, a lot about the Chichimecas is a mystery. However, we can learn a bit about them by seeing how both the Aztecs and later the Spanish understood the catchall term, ''Chichimeca''.
Aztecs and Chichimeca
The term Chichimeca comes from Nahuatl, the predominant language of central Mexico. So, what did the people of the Aztec Empire mean when they used this identifier? Anthropologists have identified four primary traits of what it meant to be Chichimeca.
First, being Chichimeca meant belonging to one of the tribes north of central Mexico. The direction of north was in fact very deeply connected to the concept of being Chichimeca, as they claimed a mythological ancestral homeland even further north. Secondly, the Aztecs defined Chichimecas as sky-worshipping people, a way to distinguish them from idol-worshipping cultures of central Mexico. Thirdly, the Aztecs noted that Chichimecas conducted different sacrifices to these more ethereal sky-deities. Whereas the Aztecs sacrificed humans to the gods but cutting out their hearts, the Chichimeca generally sacrificed deer and only occasionally sacrificed humans (by means of shooting them with arrows, not removing the heart).
The fourth, and final, defining trait of the Chichimecas may be the most important. Chichimecas were descendants of nomadic hunter-gatherers. That's an important distinction. A large number of Chichimeca cultures were semi-nomadic, but it was this ancestry that really mattered. Why? It's because of one specific group of Chichimecas, called the Mexica. The Mexica were a Chichimeca tribe that claimed to have come from a mythical northern homeland known as Aztlán, so when they arrived in central Mexico they were called ''people of Aztlán'', or Aztecs.
That's right, the Aztecs themselves were, ancestrally, Chichimeca people. That's why the concept of having nomadic ancestors was more important than actually being nomadic. It was a way for the Aztecs to claim part-Chichimeca identity. But why would they want to?
Aztec culture is very interesting for this reason. On one hand, they identified the Chichimeca as less-civilized peoples of the north. On the other, they identified themselves as being part Chichimeca. There were two reasons for this. First, the Aztecs were proud of their rise to power. They knew they were latecomers to central Mexico, working as mercenaries for established cities before rising to become the most powerful people in the region. So, identifying with Chichimeca heritage was a way to show how far they'd come.
At the same time, it was a way to tie into their mythology. Before the Mexica arrived in central Mexico, the region was dominated by the ancient Toltec civilization (which vanished around the 12th century CE). The Toltecs themselves were once semi-nomadic Chichimeca people who had settled down and built some of the first major urban centers of central Mexico. According to Aztec mythology, their ancestral rulers were born of a marriage between a Toltec princess and Chichimeca man. In this sense, the Aztecs were the clear successors of unclaimed Toltec political authority, an authority they couldn't claim without recognizing their Chichimeca ancestry.
The Chichimeca and the Spanish
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 1520s, they adopted the term Chichimeca. This is our other source of the term as it's been maintained historically, and it meant something a little different to Spaniards, who didn't really care about Aztec genealogical mythology. Under Spanish rule, the term Chichimeca came to be more clearly identified with what European empires might have called ''barbarian''.
This was based in how the Europeans viewed the cultures of the various Chichimeca peoples. For one, many of these groups were semi-nomadic, relying mostly on hunting. Even those that farmed practiced agriculture on a smaller scale than urbanized populations like the Aztecs. Europeans also saw the relatively high degrees of gender egalitarianism in Chichimeca cultures as a sign of their barbarous ways.
Perhaps most important, however, was the matter of Chichimeca clothing. To Europeans of the 16th century, clothes were everything. You had to attain a rank of nobility to even be allowed to wear clothes of certain materials and colors. The clothes very much defined the man or woman in European societies, but not in Chichimeca cultures. Most Chichimeca people wore very little clothing. In fact, most wore no clothing at all. For Europeans, this was enough to justify lumping a bunch of cultures under a single name. After all, only barbarians didn't appreciate the value of clothing.
The Chichimeca people include a number of ethnic and cultural groups of Mexico, roughly grouped together by other empires. The term was first widely used by the Aztecs, who defined the Chichimeca as northern, sky-worshipping, deer-sacrificing people with semi-nomadic ancestry. Interestingly, the Aztecs came from a Chichimeca tribe, and they made no attempts to hide this. Later, the term ''Chichimeca'' would also be used by the Spanish to refer to northern semi-nomadic tribes who wore little to no clothing, a clear sign of barbarism in European cultures. In both cases, the term was something not used by the people themselves, but one applied to them. It's an empire thing.
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