The Tarascan Empire

The Tarascan Empire

To the west, the Purepecha people, called Tarascan by the Spanish, flourished from 1100 to 1530. The center of the Tarascan empire was their capital city of Tzintzuntzan. From this religious and administrative center, the Tarascans waged war against their enemies, the Aztecs.

Products such as honey, cotton, feathers, salt, gold, and copper were highly prized by the Tarascans. Neighboring regions that possessed these commodities quickly became a primary target of their military expansion. When conquered, the peoples of these regions were expected to pay tributes of material goods to the Tarascan lord.

The Aztecs attempted more than once to conquer the Tarascan lands, but never succeeded. This left the Aztecs with a major rival on their western border. In combat they repeatedly suffered grievous losses to the Tarascan armies. For example, in 1478 the ruling Aztec lord, Axayacatl, marched against the Tarascans. He found his army of 24,000 confronted by an opposing force of more than 40,000 Tarascan warriors. A ferocious battle went on all day. Many of the Aztec warriors were badly wounded by arrows, stones, spears, and sword thrusts. The following day, the Aztecs were forced to retreat, having suffered the loss of more than half of their elite warriors.

The arrival of the Spanish captain Hernán Cortés and his men on the east coast of Mexico in April 1519 led to the end of both the Aztec and the Tarascan empires. Knowing that the Spaniards were on their way to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs sent emissaries to the Tarascans to ask for help. Instead of providing assistance, they sacrificed the Aztec messengers. Tenochtitlan fell in 1521 after a bloody siege. The Tarascans’ turn came in 1522. The last Tarascan king, Tangaxoan II, offered little resistance. Once he submitted, all the other Tarascan realms surrendered peacefully. After the conquest, Spanish missionaries organized the Tarascan Empire into a series of craft-oriented villages, and today the area abounds with craftspeople skilled in wood, copper, cloth, and clay.

Why isn’t the Tarascan empire better known? Unlike the Aztecs, the Tarascans left no personal documentary histories. Without the assistance of Spanish missionary-historians dedicated to writing down their story, much of their history was lost. However, archaeological excavations and a significant body of pottery, copper, and stone objects affords us a glimpse into the lives of this strong and highly developed civilization.

Discussion Question:

With new technologies there are many ways to preserve history. Name some of the institutions and technologies that help preserve history for future generations. Also consider ways that even today important histories can be lost or obliterated.


The term chacmool refers to a style of sculpture, representing a male figure in a specific pose: seated on the ground with its upper back raised, the head is turned to a near right angle, the legs are drawn up, elbows rest on the ground. The receptacle held on the stomach is thought to be for sacrificial offerings. Chacmool figures have been found at temples throughout Mesoamerica suggesting that this sculptural form was important to several civilizations, including Mayan, Toltec, Aztec, and Tarascan.

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Tarascan, ca. 1250–1521
Stone, 84 x 150 x 48 cm
Museo Nacional de Antropología, INAH,
Mexico City 10-1609
Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

1. The style of this Tarascan figure differs from those of the Aztecs. Choose another figure in this guide and compare and contrast the style of the two works.

2. Take the pose of the chacmool figure. Describe how it feels to assume this pose. What areas of your body are in tension? Even though you are reclining, do you feel relaxed? What words can you find to describe your associations with this pose?

Further Explorations

Although they display a similar pose, chacmool figures in different styles have been found in many Mesoamerican cultures. Research other chacmool figures and, using that information, design one that you think might be discovered in future archaeological excavations.

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