The Codex Tulane

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

Codex Tulane

The Codex Tulane or Códice Hamelulpan provides a fascinating example of the adaptability and re-purposing of native texts within changing historical contexts.  Like most post-contact codices, the Codex Tulane was likely composed in the early decades of Spanish rule (ca. 1550s) to establish an authoritative lineage or lineages vying for territorial rights and privileges.  Painted on gessoed pieces of deer hide are 15 generations of royal ancestors spanning 300 years of marital history from two Mixtec-speaking towns, Acatlán and Chila, located in what is today southern Puebla and northern Oaxaca, Mexico.  The document was painted for Mixtec elites to support their claims before Spanish colonial administrators who likely would not have understood the Mixtec glyphs or the rolled out format but would have respected its native provenance and visual impressiveness.  This alone would have conferred on the document a kind of discursive authority which local caciques deployed in their favor. The physical characteristics and textual content of the piece combine pre-contact pictorial conventions of both Mixtec and Aztec indigenous scribes, such as the deerskin substrate and the use of the native calendar, hieroglyphics, and iconography.  Notable too is the continued indigenous practice of beginning the manuscript with references to the creation of the world, iconic places, and principal deities, thereby extending the reign of these two noble houses back into the mythological past and connecting them to the political history of the region.

Unrolling the Codex Tulane

The Codex Tulane does not tell a linear story in the Western sense of containing a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Rather, the purpose was to create a foundational text depicting the marriages and legitimate descent of hereditary rulers of two Mixtec communities and thereby establishing territorial rights through direct noble lineage.  Among the more intriguing aspects of the Codex Tulane is that, at the turn of the 18th century, the manuscript was repurposed to acquire a later meaning and function.  Beyond its initial use as a certificate establishing the legitimacy through bloodlines of the ruling houses of Acatlán and Chila, around the year 1801, Mixtec glosses in alphabetic script were added to depict a map of the satellite communities surrounding the town of San Juan Ñumí in Oaxaca, some 90 miles south of Chila.  The codex was thus repurposed 250 years later by San Juan Ñumí townspeople for use in legal proceedings to support corporate land claims, that is, not determined by hereditary descent.  As illustrated below, the map is strategically painted alongside the genealogies, effectively inserting the residents of San Juan Ñumí into the narrative of the Tulane, thereby lending antiquity and indigenous authenticity to their claim, and ultimately bolstering the credibility of their case.

The detail shown below shows the juxtaposition of original painted content with late 18th -early 19th century handwriting.  The second named ruling couple in the line of Chila kings, Lord 4 Deer and Lady 6 Death are the bottommost couple. These are historical figures; their identities established through the combination of dots and symbols connected to their heads. However, there is hand-written Mixtec annotation between these two figures and along the sides of the other pairs of rulers which was written about 250 years later and confers a spatial function to this particular segment of the Codex, irrespective of the original meaning.

Detail from the Tulane Codex

The writing between Lord 4 Deer and Lady 6 Death names the town of San Juan Ñumí as a central location and the inscriptions on either side of the figures name other nearby towns in Oaxaca.  Named also is one Doña Josefa, who inherited the right to rule the territory described in the 17th century.  It is likely that the native Mesoamerican appearance of the original manuscript appealed to the 19th century claimants to add credence and thereby bolster their territorial aspirations, probably presented before government authorities who could not read the original document.