IN SEARCH OF AZTLÁN
Dr. Jack Forbes Interview
October 9, 1999
Q: Dr. Forbes, please tell us about the migrations of Native Americans
peoples throughout the Americas.
A: From about forty thousand years ago until about eleven or twelve or
thirteen thousand years ago, depending on the exact region, a good part
of North America was covered with glaciers. The glaciers extended all
the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific, across the northern United States
and across what is now Canada.
During that period of time, linguistic evidence seems to indicate that
most of our native language groups, the ancestors of those language groups,
were living south of the ice, because it looks like it took twenty to
forty thousand years for the special characteristics of American languages
to evolve in relation to Asian and other languages. So during that period
of time, the ancestors of all of our native people except probably for
the people known as Eskimos and Aleut people, were living south of this
ice belt. And most of them were probably living in South America or at
least down in Central America, because much of the United States was tundra
or taiga--pretty hard to live in. And [their population was] probably
But as the ice began to melt and the weather began to warm up, the migrations
seemed to have been from south to north. Most people dont seem to
understand that this is where most of our American ancestors came from.
They came from the south moving north rather than coming down from Alaska,
where the population was, undoubtably, very scanty during that period
Eventually, of course, these groups meet. But one of the things that is
interesting about some of the new DNA studies and so on, is that it looks
like our ancient American peoples--whom Ill just call Americans
for short--these Americans had only a very small number of female ancestors.
So most of us, whether were living in the extreme southern part
of South America or living in Mexico or in the U.S. or Canada today, are
descended from a very small group of female ancestors, and probably an
almost equally small group of original male ancestors, as well. So we
are all related. All the native people of the Americas are distinctly
related with each other.
So as time goes by, of course, migrations continue to take place because
warming continues, and a lot of other processes occur, which lead people
to move. We find very large language families developing, such as the
family know as the Uto-Aztecan or Uto-Nahua language family, from whom
many modern Mexican people are descended. And these people, apparently,
when the Europeans begin to move across the U.S. and Canada, it appears
that these peoples are spread out all the way from southern Saskatchewan,
maybe Alberta, in the form of people known as Shoshones. [They] are spread
all the way out from there clear down into Central America, down into
Nicaragua, and possibly even, in a few instances, farther south than Nicaragua.
So this is a great language family, which spans a little bit of Canada
and most of the western United States, and then all the way down into
Mexico and Central America. Today of course, we have many different tribes
who are descended from this language family. Groups such as the Utes,
the Comanches, the Shoshones, many California Indian groups, the Paiutes
and others in Nevada. And of course, many different groups in Mexico.
Q: We heard theories that the historical Aztlán may well have been
in Nayarit, the immediate precursor to the trip to Mexico City, and yet
we found these maps that alluded to possible original sites that predate
this in the American Southwest. Could you explain how this might be possible,
in terms of what weve known as the succession of migrations?
A: Well, of course, at the time of the Spanish conquest, the field of
history was very well developed among the ancient people of what is now
central Mexico. They kept track of their own past, year by year. Of course,
as time went by, some of it got mixed up a little bit and there were political
things that got written in once in a while, but generally speaking it
was a pretty profound historical record.
After the conquest, many individuals began writing this history down in
Nahuatl as well as in in Spanish, and we have texts, such as that of the
Codex Chimaplain, which, specifically, states that the Aztec origin, the
place of origin, was in what had come to be known as New Mexico, Nuevo
Mexico, which at that particular time, would be, basically, the southern
United States, considered broadly rather than the present state of New
When the first Spanish expeditions began to move north, out of the Valley
of Mexico, one of the things that they were very interested in was finding
new riches, otro Mexicos in the north, and so they want very much to know
where the Aztecs came from. They want to know about fabled cities that
might still exist in the North where they can find a lot of gold and so
on. Every expedition that heads towards the north has large numbers of
people who speak Mexicano, or Nahuatl. There are people from other language
groups, as well, but the main emphasis is on the Mexican-speaking people
because they are used as interpreters with different tribes in the north,
and it is assumed, by the Spaniards, that an interpreter in the Mexican
language will be of extreme value no matter where they go. As they travel
north, for example, the Coronado expedition in 1539, 1540, take many many
hundreds if not a thousand or more Mexican-speaking people with them into
what comes to be known as Nuevo Mexico. And it is this movement, I believe,
which leads to the identification of a number of ruins and other places
in the Southwest, as being Casas De Moctezuma houses of Moctezuma, or
origin places of the Aztecs or Aztlán. One finds the Spaniards
talking about this very frequently in their writings. And not only in
the writings of people like Chimalpain, but also in writings of Spanish
historians, as well.
Q: Could you tell us about Chimalpain?
A: Chimalpain was a Nahua-speaking native person who lived in the area
of the city of Mexico in the latter part of the fifteen hundreds and early
sixteen hundreds. He was one of the main sources of information for other
writers who came along later, so its a very valuable text that he
has for us, identifying with Aztlán, with a city in a lake, in
the north in an area known today--or at time--as Nuevo Mexico.
But in addition to that kind of information, you have the testimony of
the Spaniards as they visit the Southwest, and they mark on their maps,
as youre well aware, all of these houses of Montezuma and ruenas,
ruins of the Aztecs. And when we find places like Casas Grande Chihuahua,
and Casa Grande in southern Arizona, this terminology of Casa Grande
is one that is closely associated with this belief that the Aztecs came
from that region.
Now the exact places where Uto-Azteca speaking people migrated from, are
not completely known. Because, of course, as I indicated, during the period
of glaciation, the language groups were probably much farther south. There
was probably a long northward migration, but there could have been many
migrations back and forth, in the mean time. Were talking about
ten thousand years of movements, and many many different things may have
happened. But nonetheless we see, if you look at a map of the Uto-Aztecan
family, you will see that they have a very very large territory in the
arid sections of the western United States, precisely around the area
that is identified on some of the maps as being the homeland of the Aztecas.