For fivecenturies, North Americans have been fascinated and intrigued by stories of themagnificent Aztec Empire. This extensive Mesoamerican Empire was in its ascendancyduring the late Fifteenth and early Sixteenth Centuries. The Aztec Empire of1519 was the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdom of all time. This multi-ethnic,multi-lingual realm stretched for more than 80,000 square miles through manyparts of what are now central and southern Mexico.

The Aztec Empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf coast and from central Mexico to the present-day Republic of Guatemala. Fifteen million people, living in thirty-eight provinces and residing in 489 communities, paid tribute to the Emperor Moctezuma II. The map below shows the gradual expansion of the Aztec Empire between 1429 and 1519>.

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However, by the time that Hernán Cortésand his band of Spanish mercenaries arrived on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz in1519, omens of impending doom had begun to haunt Emperor Moctezuma II and hisadvisors in their capital city, Tenochtitlán. With an incredible coalition ofindigenous forces, Cortés and his lieutenants were able to bring about the fallof one of the greatest indigenous American empires in only two years.

TheUto-Aztecan Linguistic Group

The Empire that the Aztecs amassed makesthem unique among Amerindian peoples. But, in at least one respect, they arefar from unique. The Aztecs and other Náhuatl-speaking indigenous peoples ofMexico all belong to the Uto-Aztecan Linguistic Group. Spoken in many regionsof the western U.S. and Mexico, the Uto-Aztecan languages include a wide rangeof languages, stretching from Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming all the way down toEl Salvador in Central America.

While the Aztecs of the Sixteenth Centurylived in the south central part of the present-day Mexican Republic, a widescattering of peoples who presently live in the United States could probably bedescribed as “distant cousins” to the Aztecs. If you belong to the Shoshone,Ute, Paiute, or Gabrielino (Tongva) Indians, you may very well share commonroots with the famous Aztecs of central Mexico.

How is it that we can conclude that theserelationships exist? Studies in historical linguistics have analyzed theUto-Aztecan tongues — and the Náhuatl language in particular — have determinedthat Náhuatl was actually not native to central Mexico. Instead, it was carriedsouth from lands that are believed to have been in the northwestern region ofthe present-day Mexican Republic and — before that — the United States. Most ofus have already heard the story of Aztlán and the Aztec journey from thatmythical homeland to central Mexico.

As a matter of fact, the various Azteccultures uniformly asserted that they had come from the north during anestimated period of 200 to 800 years before the Spanish conquest. In addition,linguists such as Dakin (1983) and Kaufman (2001) have also concluded that Náhuatlwas not native to central Mexico.

TheLegend of Aztlán

Legend states that the Aztec and other Náhuatl-speaking tribal groups originally came to the Valley of Mexico from a region in the northwest, popularly known as Aztlán-Chicomoztoc. The name Aztec, in fact, is said to have been derived from this ancestral homeland, Aztlán (The Place of Herons). According to legend, the land of Aztlán was said to have been a marshy island situated in the middle of a lake.

For nearly five centuries, popularimagination has speculated about the location of the legendary Aztlán. Somepeople refer to Aztlán as a concept, not an actual place that ever existed.However, many historians believe that Aztlán did indeed exist. The historianPaul Kirchhoff suggested that Aztlán lay along a tributary of the Lerna River,to the west of the Valley of Mexico. Other experts have suggested the Aztlánmight be the island of Janitzio in the center of Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán,with its physical correspondence to the description of Aztlán. Manyanthropologists have speculated that the ancestral home of the Aztecs lay inCalifornia, New Mexico or in the Mexican states of Nayarit, Sonora and Sinaloa.

TheNorth-to-South Movement

The idea that Sinaloa, Sonora, California,and New Mexico might be the site of Aztlán is a very plausible explanation whenhistorical linguistics are considered. “The north-to-south movement of the Aztlángroups is supported by research in historical linguistics,” writes theanthropologist, Professor Michael Smith of the University of New York, in TheAztecs, “The Náhuatl language,classified in the Nahuan group of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, is unrelated to most Mesoamerican nativelanguages.” As a matter of fact, “Náhuatl was a relatively recentintrusion” into central Mexico.

On the other hand, if one observes thelocations of the indigenous people who spoke the Uto-Aztecan languages, all of their lands lay to the northwest of theValley of Mexico. The northern Uto-Aztecans occupied a large section of theAmerican Southwest. Among them were the Hopi and Zuni Indians of New Mexico andthe Gabrielino Indians of the Los Angeles Basin. The Central Uto-Aztecans —occupying large parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Sonora in northwestern Mexico —included the Papago, Opata, Yaqui, Mayo, Concho, Huichol and Tepehuán. It isreasonable to assume that where there is a linguistic relationship there ismost likely also a genetic relationship. Thus, it is very possible that thelegendary Aztlán or another ancestral home of the Aztecs – was located in theSouthwestern United States.

TheAztlán Migrations

It is important to note, however, that theAztlán migrations were not one simple movement of a single group of people.Instead, as Professor Smith has noted, “when all of the native histories arecompared, no fewer than seventeen ethnic groups are listed among the originaltribes migrating from Aztlán and Chicomoztoc.” It is believed that the migrations southward probably tookplace over several generations. “Led by priests,” continues ProfessorSmith, these large groups of migrants “stopped periodically to build houses andtemples, to gather and cultivate food, and to carry out rituals.”

The Original Náhuatl People

The migrating groups included manyNáhuatl-speaking peoples who settled in the Valley of Mexico and adjacentvalleys that are now in the surrounding states of Morelos, Tlaxcala, andPuebla. The seven Náhuatl-speaking tribescomprised the following:

The Xochimilca — The Xochimilcawere the first Náhuatl tribe to arrive in the Valley of Mexico, settling around900 A.D. in Cuahilama, near what is now Santa Cruz Acalpixca (in Mexico City).They were eventually subdued by the Mexica and became part of the Aztec Empire.The Chalca ofChalco— The Chalca were the second tribe to arrive in the Valley. They establishedthemselves east of the Xochimilca about 25 km (16 miles) east of Tenochtitlán.Chalco was conquered by the Aztecs around 1465. The Tepaneca — The Tepanecs orTepaneca were the third tribe to arrive in the Valley of Mexico in the late12th or early 13th centuries. They settled in Azcapotzalco on the northwestshore of Lake Texcoco. In 1428, Tepaneca became part of the Aztec Empire.The Acolhua of Texcoco — The fourthtribe to arrive in the area, the Acolhua, settled on the northeastern shore ofthe Lake Texcoco. They occupied mostof the eastern Basin of the Valley of Mexico, with their capital in Texcoco.Today, Texcoco is a city and municipio located in the State of Mexico, about 25km (15 miles) northeast of Mexico City.The Tlahuica — The Tlahuicawere the fifth Náhuatl people to arrive in central Mexico. They were organizedinto about 50 small city states located in what is now the state of Morelos;their largest cities were Cuauhnahuac (modern Cuernavaca), about 85 km (53miles) south of Mexico City, and Huaxtepec (modern Oaxtepec), about 60 km (37miles) south of Mexico City. The Tlahuica eventually became part of the AztecEmpire.The Tlaxcaltecans(Tlaxcalans)— The Tlaxcalans settled to the east of the Valley of Mexico. Their major city,Tlaxcala, is 125 km (78 miles) to the east of Mexico City today. The Tlaxcalansopposed the Aztec Empire and their nation evolved into an independent enclavedeep in the heart of the Aztec Empire. By 1519, Tlaxcala was a small, denselypopulated confederation of 200 settlements with a population of about 150,000,surrounded on all sides by the Aztec Empire. The Mexica — The Mexica, according to ProfessorSmith, were “the inhabitants of the cities of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco.”They were the last of the Náhuatl-speaking groups to arrive in the Valley ofMexico and they eventually became the masters of the Aztec Empire.

TheExisting Uto-Aztecan Languages

SIL International (formerly known as theSummer Institute of Linguistics) states that there are sixty-two existingUto-Aztecan languages spread throughout the U.S., Mexico, and Central America.For a map showing the regions where this linguistic group is located, pleasesee the following link:

TheNorthern Uto-Aztecans of the American Southwest

The Northern Uto-Aztecans, inhabitingseveral American states, speak thirteen of the sixty-two languages. But theSouthern Uto-Aztecans – almost all of whom make their homes south of thepresent-day U.S.-Mexican border – speak 49 languages.

The Northern Uto-Aztecans are best knownas the “Great Basin peoples,” and the majority of them belong to the Numicsubdivision of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages. The Numic Division isdivided into several branches. The Western Numic consists primarily of theNorthern Paiute, who inhabit Oregon, California, and Nevada.

The Southern Numic Division includes the Southern Paiute and Ute Indians. The Southern Paiute originally inhabited southern Utah, southern Nevada and northern Arizona. The Ute tribe once lived over much of Utah which was named after them and all of western Colorado. It is believed that they even stretched into Nebraska and New Mexico.

The Central Numic family is made up of thePanamint, Shoshone, and Comanche tribes. The Shoshone Indian people traditionallylived on lands in the east-central area of California to the east of the SierraNevada range, including Owens Valley and the lands south of it, which includesDeath Valley. The Shoshone language is very closely related to the Paiutelanguage, and some Shoshone tribes today live as far north as Idaho andMontana, representing the northernmost stretches of the Uto-Aztecans.

The Numic Family also includes a great many California tribes: the Serrano, Cupan, Luiseno, Cahuilla, Cupeno, Kiowa and Gabrielino, among others. It is noteworthy that one of these tribes the Gabrielino Indians, who were given their name by the Spaniards because they occupied the lands near the San Gabriel Mission are the primary indigenous group that occupied the Los Angeles Basin. The Gabrielino Indians are today known as the “Kizh Nation,” which is believed to be a word from their language meaning “People of the willow houses.” Because they speak a Uto-Aztecan language, the people of the Kizh Nation can be considered distant relatives to the Aztecs. A distribution of Uto-Aztecan languages, showing the Northern Uto-Aztecan regions:

TheSouthern Uto-Aztecans of Mexico

The Southern Uto-Aztecans have a verylarge representation spread over a large area. An important branch of theUto-Aztecans is the Sonoran Family of Languages, mainly spoken by indigenouspeoples of Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Durango, and Arizona. This group isrepresented by several tribal groups that are well-known to most Americans. TheCorachol Family is represented in the present day era by the Cora and HuicholIndians of Nayarit and Jalisco.

Another Sonora subdivision is the TepimanFamily (spoken by the Papago, Pima Bajo, and Tepehuán of Sonora, Chihuahua andDurango). And the most well-known Sonoran division is the Taracahitic Family(spoken by the Mayo, Yaqui and Tarahumara of northwestern Mexico). As you mightexpect, a family is a group of languages that are genetically and culturallyrelated to one another.

When the Spaniards arrived in Sinaloa in1523, a large number of Taracahitic peoples inhabited the coastal area ofnorthwestern Mexico along the lower courses of the Sinaloa, Fuerte, Mayo, andYaqui Rivers. The Yaqui Indians of Sonora are the best known tribe of this familybecause they continued to resist the Spanish Empire and the Mexican Republicwell into the Twentieth Century. The Mayo Indians, closely related to theYaquis, also resisted the central authority of Sonora well into the NineteenthCentury and today number some 40,000 citizens, inhabiting the border regions ofnorthern Sinaloa and southern Sonora.

TheNáhuatl Speakers of Mexico in 2000

The Aztecan or Náhuatl-speaking peoples ofcentral and southern Mexico speak almost thirty languages and are the single largestlinguistic group in Mexico. In the 2000 census, 1,448,936 individuals fiveyears of age and older were classified as Náhuatl-speakers, representing 24% ofthe total indigenous-speaking population. Many dialects of Náhuatl are spokenthroughout Mexico and all are believed to be derived from a common source,perhaps thousands of years into the past.


Through time, all cultures and languagesevolve. Sooner or later, a homogenous cultural group, responding toenvironmental and social pressures, will experience a cultural divergence ofits component parts. As some members of an ethnic group begin to move away fromthe core group, their cultural and linguistic identity will change and undergoa transformation into a new cultural group. The dialects spoken by similarpeoples – once they have been isolated from one another for a period of time –undergo a cultural diffusion until,eventually, the resulting groups reach a point where they speak mutuallyunintelligible languages.


Language divergence takes place when a language breaks into dialects due to alack of spatial interaction among speakers of a language, and continued isolation causes new languages tobe formed. As an example, at some point in the distant past — probably afew thousand years ago — the ancestors of the Aztecs and the Yaquis were oneand the same people, speaking a single language and practicing a singleculture. However, in 1519, as Hernán Cortés sailed along the eastern seaboardwith his small fleet, the Yaquis and Aztecs were two separate ethnic groups.They now spoke separate languages, practiced religions unknown to each other,and lived 1,300 kilometers away from each other. When two ethnic groups belongto the same linguistic grouping, we infer that they are in some way related.

So, the big question is “How and when didthe Aztecs diverge from the Great Basin Indians and from the Yaquis and Mayosof Sonora?” Although studies have been done in attempt to determine thechronology of Uto-Aztecan cultural divergence, most of the experts do not agreeon the numbers.

TheFirst Uto-Aztecans

In the 1930s, the linguist Dr. RobertMowry Zinng wrote that the ShoshoneIndians of the Southwestern U.S.A. probably represent the closest thing we will ever find to the first Uto-Aztecans— the proto Uto-Aztecan culture — because they had not migrated as far as otherUto-Aztecan cultures, such as the Yaquis, Mayos, and Aztecs who are nowfar-removed from their probable ancestral homeland in the Great Basin of theUnited States.

Other authors have agreed with thisanalysis, stating that ultimately the roots of all Uto-Aztecan cultures will befound in the north. However, some theories have suggested that SouthernCalifornia was the original home of the first Uto-Aztecans and that the Paiuteand Shoshone diverged from the main group by migrating eastward into the GreatBasin.

EarlyUto-Aztecan Differentiation

Half a century ago, both Sydney M. Lamband Morris Swadesh hypothesized that about fifty centuries ago (circa 3000B.C.), the Proto-Uto-Aztecan culture was becoming “dialecticallydifferentiated, perhaps somewhere around the Arizona-Sonora border.” Utilizingthe linguistic term “minimum centuries ago” as a tool for measuring divergence,Lamb stated that the Numic and Aztec languages probably diverged 47 minimumcenturies ago (circa 2700 B.C.).

Separationof the Aztecs and Yaquis

Once the Northern and Southern Uto-AztecanGroups diverged, the ancestors of the present-day Aztecs, Yaquis and Mayosapparently made their way into the territory of Sonora in the present-dayMexican Republic. Dr. Lamb hypothesized that the Cáhita (Mayo and Yaqui) ancestral language diverged from the Aztecancestral language 27 minimum centuries ago (circa 700 B.C.).

However, the late Wick R. Miller concludedthat glottochronological estimates placed the divergence of the Aztecanlinguistic group from the Sonoran at before 4500 B.C. (much earlier than Lamb’stheory). It is important to recognize, however, that many linguists do not agree on the validity and accuracy ofglottochronology and lexicostatistics in determining linguistic differentiation.And some archaeologists are still studying the Uto-Aztecan migrations andpreparing to draw their own unique conclusions.

In the final analysis, however, nearly all experts agree that the Uto-Aztecan trunk is a widespread language grouping, boasting a tremendous diversity of language families spread over a large area. Studying and understanding who speak these languages and where they live provides us for clues in determining who may be related to the Aztecs.


Beekman,Christopher and Alexander F. Christensen. “Controlling for Doubt andUncertainty through Multiple Lines of Evidence: A New Look at the MesoamericanNahua Migrations,” Journal ofArchaeological Method and Theory (June 2003). Available at:

Hale, Kenneth.“Internal Diversity in Uto-Aztecan: I.”International Journal of AmericanLinguistics, Vol. 24 (1958), pp. 101-107.

Hale, Kenneth.“Internal Diversity in Uto-Aztecan: II.”International Journal of AmericanLinguistics, Vol. 25 (1959), pp. 114-121.

Kroeber, A. L.“Uto-Aztecan Languages of Mexico.”Ibero-Americana:8 (University of California,Berkeley, 1934).

Lamb, Sydney M.“Linguistic Prehistory in the Great Basin.”International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 24 (1958), No. 2, pp.95-100.

Miller, Wick R.“Uto-Aztecan languages,” inHandbookof North American Indians, vol. 10, Southwest. Edited by A. Ortiz,pp. 13-24. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press (1983).

Smith, Michael E.The Aztecs.Cambridge,Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1996.

Swanson, Earl H.“Utaztekan Prehistory” ­ Occasional Papers of the Idaho StateUniversity Museum, Number 22 (Pocatello, Idaho, 1968).

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Zingg, RobertMowry. A Reconstruction of Uto-AztekanHistory, ­ University of Denver Contributions to Ethnography: II. New YorkCity: G.E. Stechert and Company, 1939.