When the Spanish landed in modern-day Mexico in the early 16th century, there were two major powers already there: the Aztecs and their fierce rivals, the Tarascans. While the Aztecs are relatively well-known, for the most part the Tarascans have faded into obscurity. Yet at the height of their power, the Tarascans could easily go to-to-toe with their Aztec rivals, and in many cases did. I recently came across an interview with history professor James Blake Wiener, an expert on the archaeology and ethnohistory of the Tarascan Empire, about this ancient civilization.
The Tarascan state’s roots began around the year 1200, when a significant movement of people was occurring throughout Mesoamerica, and several large settlements were built in a lava field near present-day Zacapu, Mexico. Yet by 1450, these settlements had been abandoned. This corresponds loosely to the legends that the Tarascans have about their own origins: they settled in what is now Michoacán from elsewhere, although were greeted with hostility by the people living there, but were eventually able to conquer their foes in rapid succession. During the 13th century, Michoacán was most likely invaded by warrior-centric people from the north, bringing about a reorganization of both the old and new populations, producing a complex society formed by independent towns or city-states joined under the rule of one single “king”.
The Tarascan people had a lot in common with their neighbors, with similar types of art, technology and religion with variations in style. Their empire was made up of various different ethnic groups, some of which were conquered and others that voluntarily asked to become Tarascan subjects. Ethnic groups maintained their own languages and the right to elect their own local authorities, on condition that they paid tribute to the Tarascan king and fought in his wars. Their rapid expansion put them at odds with another aggressively expanding empire in the region: the Aztecs. The two empires fought constantly, yet neither one of them was able to gain the upper hand in their struggle.
When the Spanish came to Mexico, they paid more attention to the Aztec Empire, meaning that there were plenty more records about them than other groups. Since Mexican archaeology has been focused on tourism, and people are more interested in seeing huge monumental structures, the relatively modest and small-scale Tarascan sites are often overlooked. After conquering the Aztecs, the Spanish turned their attention to the Tarascans, although their conquest was relatively peaceful. Their descendants call themselves the “Purépecha” and can still be found around Michoacán, and although they retain a strong ethnic identity, knowledge of their ancestral state is neither widespread nor invoked in their culture.