Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

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.

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital have a green future,...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...

Water

Glacial melt is increasing  land instability in mountainous regions, with huge tsunamis…

Mapping

A large-scale terrain mapping project makes Antarctica the best-mapped continent…

Water

New research reveals that microplastics can survive in mosquitos from…

Cities

New research measures the ability of major cities to re-use…

Deserts

Biosphere 2 was one of the most ambitious experiments in…

Forests

High-quality, affordable drones can revolutionise the way that landscape and…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig charts the impact of volcanoes on nearby human…

Mapping

A volunteer-led digital mapping project is at the heart of…

Cities

As the planet urbanises, attention is turning towards the most…

Forests

Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many…

Cities

A rising number of cruise ships and their ‘overlooked’ diesel…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig charts the growth and impact of the world’s…

Deserts

Long-term studies reveal the Sahara desert has expanded substantially over…

Water

South America’s wealthiest economy is at a crossroads between environmental…

Forests

The European Court of Justice finds the logging of a…

Mountains

In this extract from his new book, Tides, mountain climber…

Cities

New data from the World Health Organization reveals that nine…

Water

In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan,…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig maps out the global production and distribution levels…