Aztlán, The Mythical Homeland of the Aztec-Mexica

Archaeological and Historical Evidence for the Aztec Homeland

Migration of Aztecs to Tenochtitlan, drawing from Boturini Codex manuscript, Mexico, 16th century
The migration of the Aztecs to Tenochtitlan, drawing from the Boturini Codex manuscript. Mexico, 16th century. DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Aztlán (also spelled Aztlan or sometimes Aztalan) is the name of the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, the ancient Mesoamerican civilization also known as the Mexica. According to their origin myth, the Mexica left Aztlan at the behest of their god/ruler Huitzilopochtli, to find a new home in the Valley of Mexico. In the Nahua language, Aztlan means “the Place of Whiteness” or “the Place of the Heron”.

What Aztlan Was Like

According to the various Mexica versions of the stories, their homeland Aztlan was a luxurious and delightful place located on a large lake, where everyone was immortal and lived happily among abundant resources. There was a steep hill called Colhuacan in the middle of the lake, and in the hill were caves and caverns known collectively as Chicomoztoc, where the ancestors of the Aztec lived. The land was filled with vast quantities of ducks, herons, and other waterfowl; red and yellow birds sang incessantly; great and beautiful fish swam in the waters and shade trees lined the banks.

At Aztlan, the people fished from canoes and tended their floating gardens of maize, peppers, beans, amaranth and tomatoes. But when they left their homeland, everything turned against them, the weeds bit them, the rocks wounded them, the fields were filled with thistles and spines. They wandered in a land filled with vipers, poisonous lizards, and dangerous wild animals before reaching their home to build their place of destiny, Tenochtitlan.

Who Were the Chichimecas?

In Aztlán, the myth goes, the Mexica ancestors dwelled in place with seven caves called Chicomoztoc (Chee-co-moz-toch). Each cave corresponded to one of the Nahuatl tribes which would later leave that place to reach, in successive waves, the Basin of Mexico. These tribes, listed with slight differences from source to source, were the Xochimilca, Chalca, Tepaneca, Colhua, Tlahuica, Tlaxcala and the group who were to become the Mexica.

Oral and written accounts also mention that the Mexica and the other Nahuatl groups were preceded in their migration by another group, collectively known as Chichimecas, who migrated from the north to Central Mexico sometime earlier and were considered by the Nahua people less civilized. The Chichimeca do not apparently refer to a particular ethnic group, but rather were hunters or northern farmers in contrast to the Tolteca, the city dwellers, the urban agricultural populations already in the Basin of Mexico.

The Migration

Stories of the battles and interventions of the gods along the journey abound. Like all origin myths, the earliest events blend natural and supernatural events, but the stories of the migrant's arrival at the Basin of Mexico are less mystical. Several versions of the migration myth include the story of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui and her 400 Star Brothers, who attempted to kill Huitzilopochtli (the sun) at the sacred mountain of Coatepec.

Many archaeologists and historical linguistics support the theory of an occurrence of multiple in-migrations to the basin of Mexico from northern Mexico and/or the southeastern United States between 1100 and 1300 A.D. Evidence for this theory includes the introduction of new ceramic types in central Mexico and the fact that the Nahuatl language, the language spoken by the Aztec/Mexica, is not indigenous to Central Mexico.

Moctezuma's Search

Aztlan was a source of fascination for the Aztecs themselves. The Spanish chroniclers and codexes report that the Mexica king Moctezuma Ilhuicamina (or Montezuma I, ruled 1440-1469) sent an expedition to search for the mythical homeland. Sixty elderly sorcerers and magicians were assembled by Moctezuma for the trip, and given gold, precious stones, mantles, feathers, cacao, vanilla and cotton from the royal storehouses to be used as gifts to the ancestors. The sorcerers left Tenochtitlan and within ten days arrived at Coatepec, where they transformed themselves into birds and animals to take the final leg of the journey to Aztlan, where they re-assumed their human form.

At Aztlan, the sorcerers found a hill in the middle of a lake, where the inhabitants spoke Nahuatl. The sorcerers were taken to the hill where they met an old man who was the priest and guardian of the goddess Coatlicue.

The old man took them to the sanctuary of Coatlicue, where they met an ancient woman who said she was the mother of Huitzilopochtli and had suffered greatly since he left. He had promised to return, she said, but he never had. People in Aztlan could choose their age, said Coatlicue: they were immortal.

The reason the people in Tenochtitlan were not immortal was because they consumed cacao and other luxury items. The old man refused the gold and precious goods brought by the returnees, saying "these things have ruined you", and gave the sorcerers waterfowl and plants native to Aztlan and maguey fiber cloaks and breechcloths to take back with them. The sorcerers transformed themselves back into animals and returned to Tenochtitlan.

What Evidence Supports the Reality of Aztlan and the Migration?

Modern scholars have long debated whether Aztlán was a real place or simply a myth. Several of the remaining books left by the Aztecs, called codexes, tell the story of the migration from Aztlan— in particular, the codex Boturini o Tira de la Peregrinacion. The tale was also reported as oral history told by Aztecs to several Spanish chroniclers including Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Diego Duran, and Bernardino de Sahagun.

The Mexica told the Spanish that their ancestors had reached the Valley of Mexico about 300 years before, after having left their homeland, traditionally located far north of Tenochtitlan. Historical and archaeological evidence shows that the migration myth of the Aztecs has a solid basis in reality.

In a comprehensive study of the available histories, archaeologist Michael E. Smith found that these sources cite the movement of not just the Mexica, but several different ethnic groups. Smith's 1984 investigations concluded that people arrived in the Basin of Mexico from the north in four waves. The earliest wave (1) was non-Nahuatl Chichimecs sometime after the fall of Tollan in 1175; followed by three Nahuatl-speaking groups who settled (2) in the Basin of Mexico about 1195, (3) in the surrounding highland valleys about 1220, and (4) the Mexica, who settled among the earlier Aztlan populations about 1248.

No possible candidate for Aztlan has yet been identified. 

Modern Aztlan

In modern Chicano culture, Aztlán represents an important symbol of spiritual and national unity, and the term has also been used to mean the territories ceded to the United States by Mexico with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, New Mexico and Arizona. There is an archaeological site in Wisconsin called Aztalan, but it is not the Aztec homeland. 


Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst