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Island of the Aztecs

Mexcaltitán from the air Mexcaltitán from the air Nayarit state
20 Jan
2015
A man-made island in western Mexico lays claim to a legendary history

Where did the Aztecs come from? According to legend, the civilisation sprung from Aztlán, which means the ‘place of the herons’ or ‘place of the egrets’. It’s often assumed to be an island.

‘In the 11th century, omens and prophesies reportedly convinced the Aztecs to move south [from Aztlán] where, centuries later, they built Tenochtitlan, or Mexico City, on an island in a lake. It would become one of the largest and most powerful cities in the world before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century,’ says Liliana Lara Guzmán from the Nayarit state government.

Mexcaltitán de Uribe is a man-made island in Nayarit  believed to date to before the 11th century with a claim to be Aztlán. The village’s canal system is built like spokes on a wheel, and the village’s few pavements flood during the wet season. An outer ring road holds the entire settlement together. Around 800 people live on the island, relying on shrimp fishing in a lake shared with alligators. Whatever dry land is to be found in the settlement is used for drying shrimp. Apart from being the supposed site of Aztlán, the village was also once famous for being a centre for moon worship in local religions.

‘All the streets at intervals have openings, through which the water flows, crossing from one street to another; and at these openings, some of which are very wide, there are also very wide bridges, composed of large pieces of timber, of great strength and well put together; on many of these bridges ten horses can go abreast,’ wrote conquistador Hernán Cortés to King Charles of Spain when  he reached the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. This resemblance to Mexcaltitán makes the Aztlán link appealing.

Speculation that Mexcaltitán was the original home for the Aztec civilisation relies less on archaeology and more on legend. But  Aztlán continues to have political significance in Mexico, with several radical groups using the legend as the basis for claiming the southwest US as occupied Mexican territory. This  relies on Aztlán being located to the north, a blow to Mexcaltitán's claim. With the region’s immigration politics directed towards the US, Mexcaltitán may have to settle for being an intriguing – not legendary – village.

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