An Introduction to Mapas

Mesoamerica stands out in the Western Hemisphere for having an unusually vast and rich body of pictorial manuscripts (known in Spanish as mapas, lienzos, códices, pinturas, etc.) made by indigenous painter-scribes. The genre of Mesoamerican pictorial manuscripts appears to have originated in the middle of the first millennium C.E. Unfortunately, only a handful of these pre-Columbian treasures survived the tumult of conquest and, perhaps, centuries of wear and tear. Yet hundreds, or possibly thousands, of mapas from sixteenth- through eighteenth-century New Spain and beyond (with copies extending into modern times) do exist, opening a window onto the experiences of indigenous peoples struggling to preserve their ways of life in the face of foreign invasion and occupation. Some pictorials, particularly from the sixteenth century, preserve pre-Columbian artistic styles, composition, and content to help sketch out critical dimensions of social, economic, and political customs of antiquity. The majority, however, capture the profound cultural changes that came with colonization. We are creating a digital collection here that will make these crucial manuscripts more easily accessible to those for whom sustained archival research is for various reasons impractical -- for scholars wishing to make a close analysis of an otherwise difficult to obtain manuscript and for teachers and students seeking primary source materials that illuminate these complex cultural and historical processes in the development of an ever more integrated world.

Although many Mesoamerican peoples had writing systems that were verging on the alphabetic at the time of European contact, they were still very much accustomed to painting their histories -- their ancient hunting and gathering phases, their migrations and original settlement in towns, the genealogies of their leading families, their conquests of neighboring groups, their religious observations, their economic accountings, and other stories capturing daily life. For the onset of the Spanish era, their pictorial manuscripts record the arrival of foreigners dressed in armor, with unknown animals such as giant dogs and horses, and priests who insisted on new ways of worshiping and a new god. Their often map-like paintings illustrate the struggle over crucial resources such as lands, woods, and bodies of water, delineating properties and territorial boundaries, as well as battles over the same. These pictorials can also depict rising demands for taxation in labor, goods, and increasingly in coin. They portray diminishing populations on the landscape, as epidemic disease wiped out whole settlements and reduced others, which Spanish officials tried, often in vain, to re-congregate.

For historians who were largely dependent upon Spanish-language sources, a situation that until the second half of the twentieth century produced histories of the U.S. Southwest, Mexico, and Central America from the perspective of Europeans, it has been a boon to discover that hundreds or thousands of untapped indigenous-authored materials can bring balance and lost voices to the historical record. Since the 1970s, when an enlightening survey of Mesoamerican pictorial manuscripts emerged in the form of the Handbook of Middle American Indians, ethnohistorians and art historians have been more energetically tackling the analysis of these challenging records. Not only do the visual elements (drawings of human figures, landmarks, flora and fauna, symbols) require careful study but the glosses and companion texts, often in indigenous languages, such as the ubiquitous Nahuatl (spoken by the Aztecs, among others), involve paleography and translation skills. Now computer technology, software, and the Internet offer to take this research process a great leap forward, helping extract the lessons these manuscripts contain for the benefit of humanities scholarship exploring many eras and cultures.

Because these manuscripts are scattered around the world, their digitization and organization as a unified and searchable online virtual archive, will provide significant assistance to various audiences wishing to incorporate them into their studies. Our project aims to increase greatly the number and accessibility of digitized pictorial manuscripts to scholars, teachers, and the interested public. Potential users include historians, art historians, anthropologists, geographers, professors of Chicano/a or Latino/a Studies and Latin American Studies, college students in these and related fields, plus teachers and students in secondary schools in the US and abroad who appreciate approaching history though firsthand, primary source materials.