The Mixtec Art of War: unveiling military ideology in pre-Columbian cultures
Fragment of the Coumbine Codex - Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Santos

The Mixtec Art of War: unveiling military ideology in pre-Columbian cultures

11/01/2020
13:12
Yanet Aguilar Sosa
Mexico City
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According to chronicles and codices, the Mixtec culture had military strategies similar to those presented in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

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500 years ago, during the last days of 1519 and the first days of 1520., Hernán Cortés sent to the Mixtec region, the first expedition in charge of one of his Spanish captains, Gonzalo de Umbría. According to the sources, Umbría entered through the ancient royal road that would imply going from Mexico City to Cuautla, then to Izúcar de Matamoros to arrive in Huajuapan, Yanhuitlán and all that is today the area of the central valleys in Oaxaca. That and another two expeditions sent by Cortés between 1520 and 1521 are being studied by archeologist Daniel Santos Hipólito.

From the primary sources, he has studied in the Mesoamerican codices, such as de Selden Codex, the Nuttal Codex, the Columbine Codex, the Bodley Codex, and the Beker Codex, but also of Antequera’s Geographical Relationships and the chronicles of Dominican friars, including Francisco de Burgoa, Francisco de Alvarado, and Fray Antonio de Herrera, the Mexican archeologist has worked in the area of Rescue of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) points out that he has discovered that the Mixtec people followed tactics and strategies similar to those included in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

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Through theories and the epistemological discourse of the Chinese book, Daniel Santos Hipólito has concluded that “there are certain characteristics that make us think that there possible was an art of war in the Mixtec region.”

His interest came from thinking it was necessary to further investigate the Mixtec region and make more emphasis in the military side of the Mixtec people, in their form of organization, in the kinds of weapons they used, the tactics and fighting strategies, the prevalence of wars in the territory, and the military structure of the Ñudzahui or Mixtec culture.

The documentary and historical research has revealed to Santos Hipólito that classifying and describing the kinds of weapons used for armed battles could suggest the use they gave them was both for ritual and war matters. “The chronicles from friars narrate, for instance, the captains’ attires, the social and economic organization of the Ñudzahui people, that the Iya, equivalent to the Tlatoani, were the leaders, and that they included an important presence of women governors who directed armies.”

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Female governors and warriors
The strong presence of women in the Ñudzahui community is one of the contributions of Daniel Santos’ investigation. He has been able to show, through the analysis of the codices, that women had a highly important place in the Mixtec people. He mentions, for instance, the story of the Señora 6-Mono that has an outstanding place.

“Sheets 6 and 7 of the Selden Codex narrate the life of the Princess 6 Mono. She was a governor of Jaltepec, in Oaxaca, and she was in control of the army for war. She faced her enemies and defeated and captured them; in the Codex, she is seen subjecting a captured enemy. This is very interesting because it makes us reconsider the idea of women having a different kind of participation,” asserts Santos Hipólito.

His research has allowed him that the case of Señora 6-Mono shows that women actually had important and defined roles in pre-Columbian societies and in that sense, it was common for a woman to be in charge of an army.

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“Her name is 6-Mono; she appears in the codices with her quechquémitl with a snake, but when she wins war, it is changed to a war quechquémitl, which is represented in the Mixtec culture by a band with seven arrows in three different colors: white, black, and red, which grants her an even higher sociopolitical status,” says Santos Hipólito, who adds this is not the only case because the Nuttal Codex also refers that there are several women warriors who captured mythological creatures in a battle in the Mixtec region.

The power of women was such that in the Viceregal period, the Spanish acknowledged the importance of women and even let them keep their posts; the expert mentions as instance the case of the Cacica in Tepescolula, a woman governor as the Yanhuitlan caciques and other people of the Mixtec region where they had a strong presence.

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Expeditions
Hernán Cortés sent three expeditions to the Mixtec region because when he was in Tenochtitlán, he noticed there were many gold objects. When he asked about it to emperor Moctezuma, he told him that all the raw material came precisely from the Ñudzahui region. “That is why he send Gonzalo de Umbría in a first expedition by late 1520 and early 1521, and then sends another expedition in charge of Francisco de Orozco, also in the first months of 1520; by the end of 1521, Francisco de Orozco colonizes the region of what is today the Oaxaca state; then, Pedro de Alvarado also carries out another expedition to Huatulco.

“The Spanish noticed that the Mixtec region had a lot of cultural and archeological richness; that their buildings were just as big as the castles in Burgos. Amidst these narrations in documents and due to my interest in war, which I’ve been studying for several years, I thought that war in the Mixtec region is a barely studied topic but very important to understand how the Conquest took place, because there is still the official historiography of the Spanish arriving with their weapons and hence defeating all native populations, but perhaps we’re missing the military theory part, that is, to understand how were the strategies, the fighting tactics, and all these methods related to war that sometimes escape us.”

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