Historical Chichimeca Peoples: Culture & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Before the arrival of the Spanish, Mexico was home to a diverse array of cultures. In this lesson, we'll look at a few of them and see why they were all categorized under a single, slightly pejorative, name.

The Chichimeca

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.

Chichimeca farmer in Mesoamerican art
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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.

Identifying with their Chichimeca past helped the Aztecs claim the ancient Toltec civilization as their ancestors as well
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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.

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