Cartographic Encounters

Colonial Counterpoint: New World Texts as Sites of Encounter, 1492-1800

Cartographic Encounters

As an image-laden form of communication, maps tell us quite a lot about the vicissitudes of the European – Mesoamerican encounter.  The works exhibited below exemplify this merging of worldviews within maps created for:  surveys, censuses, land claims, and taxation where one finds elements of the native conventions for writing and counting continuing to be used well into the 17th century long after modes of painting pictorial texts had ceased.  This is not to say, however, that native cartography from the early colonial period was not without influence of the Renaissance worldview transplanted by the Spanish and in vogue in New Spain.  Some of the Western ideals exhibited include the use of implied grids or circles to define space and the creation of spaces alongside pictures to accommodate text captions for a Spanish-speaking audience.

A good example of this combining of conventions in cartography is the map (Folio 5) from the manuscript, La Ordenanza del Sr. Cuauhtemoc.  The Ordenanza is a transcription into written Nahuatl of an earlier pictorial manuscript recording a decree made on September 12, 1523 by the last Aztec tlatoani or ruler of Tenochtitlán, Cuauhtemoc.  It reaffirms an even earlier agreement made in 1435 by tlatoani Itzcoátl with which to establish territorial boundaries and fishing rights on Lake Texcoco with the neighboring city-state of Tlatelolco, under separate rule.  The Ordenanza manuscript consists of three sections of alphabetic text with accompanying illustrations on native amate or fig bark paper.  Included in the body of the decree are historical sections describing the founding of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco with a fourth section containing a colored map of the Lake Texcoco basin, shown below.

Like other native maps, this depiction of Lake Texcoco fills the rectangular space of the folio with depictions of canals and causeways running off the sides of the page. Also like native maps, importance is given to representing all of the necessary pieces of information like people, places, constructions, and counts (row of flags and tree-like icons in the center left and solid red circles) without trying to portray a realistic image of the lake basin geography. All of the pictographic images are annotated with Nahuatl text in varying orientations. However, the degradation of the native pictographic style can be seen by the loss of detail and lack of finesse in the renderings.  For example, the thrones of petate upon which the figures of rulers should be seated are only hinted at with diagonal hatching and the lake water in the upper left is represented only by a wavy line and not colored.


Map from the Ordenanza del Sr. Cuauhtemoc manuscript


Another painted document from the early colonial period also related to land claims is the Atatepec [Zacatepec]Land Claim, shown below.

Atatepec [Zacatepec] Land Claim document

Around 1549, a native scribe or tlacuilo painted the manuscript displayed above to support a land claim made by the town of Zacatepec (erroneously named Atatepec) in Morelos, Mexico. With it, the ruler of Zacatepec tried to reclaim lands and tribute from Martín Cortés, son of the conquistador, Hernán, then the Marquis of the Valley of Mexico, who had inherited numerous properties formerly held by indigenous rulers and towns throughout New Spain. The piece, made of a single strip of native amate fig bark paper, demonstrates how the native scribe combined information rendered pictorially in native style but also allowing sufficient space for a description of the dispute to be made in Spanish by a second, Spanish-speaking scribe.

Like the other pieces in this section, the manuscript reveals how a scribe trained in the Aztec pictorial tradition created a document for a colonial administrative function, in this case, with an intriguing adaptation of native conventions to create a cadastral map of sorts. A central rectangle represents a tract of land measuring 60 x 75 forearm lengths indicated by a picture of a hand followed by the Aztec numerical notations for counting (flags and dots). The value of tribute in timber and flowering plants grown on the parcel is given by the cross-hatched circles along the right side of the page. The place sign for Zacatepec translated as Place of Grasses appears at the bottom, along with the parties involved. The figure on the right sitting on a petate throne is the ruler of Zacatepec. The ideograph of grasses is attached to his throne. The Marquis Cortés is clearly the figure wearing European clothing and sporting a beard. Their participation in the dispute may be indicated by the speech scrolls coming from their mouths.

The rapid transition from hieroglyphic to alphabetic script by native peoples speaks volumes about their adeptness as literate peoples of highly complex societies.  Indigenous maps were one category of manuscript painting that most impressed Spaniards.  Colonial administrators quickly realized that the image was the ideal mode with which to communicate with Mesoamericans.  They were so impressed by the accuracy of native cartography that they not only permitted the continued production of pictorial maps, but encouraged the practice following royal decrees made by Phillip II to gather first-hand knowledge of lands and tribute from native informants.  As the colonial period wore on, however, the native style of map-making became more Westernized:  less stylized, less precise, and with scarce use of color and pictographs.

An excellent example of this process is the Map of Maní, below.

Map of Maní


The Maní map is a renowned pictorial map of the Tutul Xiu province in northern Yucatán depicted from the perspective of its capital, Maní (pictured in the center of map).  Data for the map was gathered in a 1557 survey undertaken to relate the pre-contact territorial holdings of the provincial capital with those held by colonial towns in neighboring provinces. The 1596 version of the original survey map is the Maní map that formed part of a dossier of documents used as evidence in a land dispute between the town of Nohcacab and that of Calkini in the neighboring province of Ah Canul.

The Map of Maní is the oldest known document to contain Yucatec Maya text written in alphabetic script. Also of particular note is the scribe’s combination of generic pictures for depicting churches and sketched footprints for roads reflecting native style with a circle to represent the provincial area around the capital of Maní that sits in the center. The map is entirely captioned with alphabetized Maya writing and produced on European paper.