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Retelling the Fall of Tenochtitlan

Posted On December 04, 2020 | 14:35 pm | by mayw | Permalink
Felipe Ledesma-Núñez discusses the fall of the Aztec Empire, based on Nahua accounts of the epidemics brought by Spanish invaders

Felipe Ledesma-Núñez, a PhD candidate in historical musicology at Harvard University, is a Tyler fellow in Pre-Columbian studies. His research report, “Epidemic Outbreak in Tenochtitlan, 1520,” explored Nahua narratives of the Spanish invasion, focusing on local conceptions of health, hygiene, and wellbeing, as part of an upcoming online exhibition on colonial epidemics in sixteenth-century Mexico.


Q&A with Felipe Ledesma-Núñez 

What were Nahua ideas of health at the time of the Spanish invasion?

Nahua conceptions of health were holistic, encompassing not only the physical but also the moral, spiritual, and supernatural realms. Their central pillars of health and wellbeing were equilibrium, moderation, and performance of social duty—good health required moderation in diet and behavior, and emotional and sexual excesses were thought to make people vulnerable to illness. They considered hygiene and cleaning of supreme importance for optimal health,  sweeping their homes every morning and washing their bodies and hands frequently. They also possessed a well-developed medical system with specialists capable of performing sophisticated surgeries and preparing highly effective herbal remedies. 

When the Spanish arrived at Tenochtitlan, the magnificent capital of the Aztec Empire and present-day Mexico City, residents were shocked by the smell and filth. The Nahuatl text of the Florentine Codex describes the arriving forces as “wrapped in dust, dirty,” their horses covered in abundant smelly sweat, while smoke from their weapons produced “fetid smells that induced fainting;” all signs that made the Nahuas view the visitors as a threat to the city’s hygiene and wellbeing. The Spanish text of the Codex neglects these details—an omission of Native perspectives rather common in the sources familiar to most modern readers. Following a treacherous attack in the summer of 1520, the Nahua expelled the Spanish and immediately set out to clean the streets and temples, hoping to restore order and ward off sickness—but it was too late. The Spanish visit had already triggered a devastating outbreak.


What was the epidemic that spread in Tenochtitlan and the surrounding areas and its effects?

Nahua sources refer to the epidemic as huey cocoliztli (“great pestilence”) and totomonaliztli (“pustules”)—smallpox, in today’s parlance. It was highly contagious and absolutely devastating, killing nearly half the city in just a few months. The first symptoms were detected in October 1520. Victims experienced gruesome pustules and severe pain, usually leading to death. Like us, they did what little they could: isolation, handwashing, devoted care for the infected. But mortality increased rapidly, peaking in November, when corpses piled up on the streets and the sick went uncared for. By mid-December, the plague subsided, ending the first and deadliest wave. The resulting devastation cleared the way for the Spanish to establish a brutal regime that would oppress the continent for three centuries, imposing unsanitary and exploitative living conditions on their Indigenous and Afro-descendant subjects. This precarity catalyzed smallpox and half a dozen other illnesses, which spread rapidly across the colonized continent and the world. By 1600, between 80 and 95 percent of the Native population of the Americas had perished from exposure to diseases and the ensuing social collapse.


Why should we think of the Spanish conquest as a health crisis rather than a war? 

The history of the conquest has long been obscured by prevailing fictions and fanciful mythmaking—framed as a feat of Spanish military boldness, a triumph of Hernán Cortés over the backward and superstitious Aztec Empire. But this is history written by the victors—an imagined tale, a piece of propaganda repeated in textbooks, museums, and literature for centuries. For the people of Tenochtitlan, this was no tale of Spanish military prowess. This was a virus that upended the world in the blink of an eye, followed by opportunist invading armies formed mostly by Mesoamerican rivals. 

It is worth considering how history is seen by the defeated. In the Nahua case, it offers a glimpse into the knowledge lost to colonial devastation. For example, Nahuas had a sophisticated understanding of herbal medicine, developed in lush botanical laboratories where they experimented with a wide variety of plants. Modern chemical studies are confirming pharmacological properties of plants like cihuapatli (Montanoa tomentosa or women’s medicine), traditionally used in women’s health and now shown to be a powerful oxytocic, and yolloxochitl (Magnolia mexicana or heart-flower tree), a magnolia traditionally used for nervous and heart ailments now found to promote cardiovascular health. One can only imagine what modern medicine might be like if colonization had not deterred the advancement of Nahua medicine. Nahua medical wisdom did not entirely disappear; it lives in colonial documents and modern-day Nahua healers, but to understand and appreciate this knowledge, we must first break the spell cast by colonialist propaganda, which has demonized Nahua knowledge as foolish superstition. 

Everyone in Pre-Columbian Studies has been brilliant and very generous. Victor Castillo, Iyaxel Cojti Ren, and James Almeida have been great interlocutors, and [Program Director] Frauke Sachse has given me great reading recommendations. Colleagues in other departments, like Anthony Kaldellis, have influenced my work. I am very grateful to be part of this vibrant community.


Interviewed and edited by Postgraduate Writing and Reporting Fellows Julia Ostmann (2018–2020) and May Wang. Photo by  Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, 2018–2020 postgraduate digital media fellow.