Managing the Herd: Human-Animal Relationships and Nahuas in 16th-Century New Spain

Friday, January 4, 2019: 11:10 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Christopher Valesey, Penn State University
The notion that indigenous peoples have special relationships with animals has a long history in academic scholarship and the popular imagination. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of indigenous-language texts in much of the Western Hemisphere, most historical research highlighting the differences in Western and non-Western conceptions of interspecies relations fails to incorporate persuasive evidence showing exactly how indigenous views were different and how may have changed. The relative abundance of Nahuatl texts written in sixteenth-century New Spain, in contrast, presents an auspicious opportunity to assess how Nahuas perceived the boundary between human and animal. Nahuas’ ideas about interspecies relations were perhaps epitomized by the notorious shapeshifters (nahualli) persecuted by the Episcopal Inquisition; not only were humans believed to be closely associated with animals, but they could even transform into them. Linguistic evidence compiled from Nahuatl dictionaries, grammars, and Book 11 of the Florentine Codex (“Earthly Things”), the most well-known ethnographic volume of colonial Mexico, shows that Nahuas blurred the boundary between human and animal in myriad ways. These pre-existing modes of understanding and interacting with animals deeply affected the ways that Nahuas interacted with newly-introduced animals like cattle, horses, sheep, pigs, and chickens. Friars struggled to articulate Iberian animal-related customs like jousting to peoples who previously lacked large tame animals like cattle and horses. Nonetheless, Nahuas’ frequent interactions with livestock in the early colonial period caused human-animal relationships to become one of the most significant aspects of cultural exchange with Spaniards. From Nahua elites’ petitions to mount horses, to indigenous complaints about cattle trampling crops, to the annual bull-runnings and juegos de caña during feast days of Saint Hippolytus on August 13th (the anniversary of the conquest of Tenochtitlan), livestock connected Nahuas to Spanish colonialism and culture perhaps more than any other single factor.