These Exquisite Indigenous Maps Of Colonial Mexico & Guatemala Weren't Just About Geography

In August 1519, Spanish explorer Hernando Cortés marched into what is now Mexican territory, conquering the mighty Aztec Empire, and beginning a long period of European colonization of the region. Indigenous peoples and communities did not disappear, however. These elaborate and beautiful maps are proof just how vibrant Indigenous communities remained in the aftermath of the conquest.


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In 1577, Spain’s King Felipe II ordered those governing his new colonies from Mexico to Peru to provide him with information about the demographics, political jurisdictions, languages, physical terrain, and native vegetation in their cities and towns. The resulting reports sometimes included maps like the one above, a watercolor and ink map showing Meztitlán, Mexico, painted by an Indigenous artist in 1579. These Mapas de las Relaciones Geográficas were created between 1579 and 1585, largely by Indigenous artists. Although the maps show 16th-century Spanish colonial churches and other such architecture, include Christian symbols, and illustrate the colonial economy, they also clearly demonstrate how Indigenous and European conceptions of community, place, geography, and the natural world continued to overlap and diverge.


A few of the maps are shown in today's post and you can explore the others in the links offered below. You can also click on any of the maps in today's post to see more information about that map.

(Re)discovering Conquest-era maps of Mexico - Spanish and Indigenous Nahuatl and Mixtec cultures intermingle and contrast in the same maps, as complex hierarchies and histories appear across the images.
Culhuacán - This slide show walks us through one of the maps, explaining the stories being told through the map.

This closeup of a portion of a larger map gives a better view of the beautiful detail.

Ixtapalapa, Mexico, 1580.

Relaciones Geográficas - This is the main website of scholars who study the maps and related documents. Click on the link and, when the new page opens, scroll down the page to learn more about these fascinating and, often, breath-taking maps created by Indigenous scholars.

Acapistla, Mexico, 1580.

Mapping Memory: Space and History in 16th-century Mexico - In this 20-minute video, the curator of an exhibition of the maps discusses their significance and explains some of their details. There is also a version of this video with Spanish subtitles.

Gueguetlan, Mexico, 1579.

Teozacoalco, Mexico, 1580. This is one of the most famous maps, because it shows family genealogies. The couples shown down the left side of the map link specific Mixtec family histories to places around Teozacoalco. Learn more about this famous map and what it means here -- click on the link and, when the new page opens, use the Elements tabs along the right side of the page to learn more about different areas of the map.

Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, 1585.