Can You Say “Cuauhtinchan?”: David Carrasco’s Lecture on an Ancient, Mexican Map

Harvard Professor David Carrasco.

David Carrasco is noted as one of the best scholars of religion and culture in Mesoamerica. Widely published and appointed in the Department of Anthropology and the Divinity school at Harvard, Carrasco knows a thing or two about mysterious Mexican artifacts, and the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan is exactly that: a long lost codex from Puebla, Mexico, serendipitously uncovered in the home of the wealthy Angeles Espinosa Yglesias. The importance of this codex’s discovery is, as Carrasco described it, akin to the unearthing of the Dead Sea scrolls. When offered the chance to study the map, Carrasco and a team of fourteen headed to Mexico.

The map, created in 1542, is a huge painting on bark parchment illustrating 300 years of Puebla history and myth. About three feet wide and two feet tall, the map is a tatter of the “best painted images ever seen of Aztec origin,” Carrasco explained. Though torn from hundreds of years of folding and unfolding, the map’s paintings were examined and restored through a variety of scientific and artistic methods.

What the team revealed was an astonishing Puebla narrative. The left side of the map tells the Puebla story of creation: the farm and city folk working together to form a community.  Through sacrifices, myths and encounters with gods, the map depicts the story of Puebla ancestors founding their town. The story ends on the right side of the map, an expansive space that reads less like the frenzied myth of the left side and more like an ordered and organized map. Embodying the feel of a medieval European tapestry but with the draw of a fairytale, the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan is a marvel.

Jocular and jovial, Carrasco described these findings with the glee of a child who has discovered a secret. By explaining the ancients’ paintings, Carrasco revealed both the emotion and humor of the Aztecs. There was the depiction of “Rumor Town,” a Puebla community known for gossip depicted as a hill with great ears. Then there was the fearsome woman leading ancestors out of the Cave of Origin who, Carrasco pointed out, was brandishing an enemy’s leg. “See, even the Aztecs knew not to mess with a powerful woman.” Who knew the ancients had such a sense of humor?

The lecture wrapped up with an animated discussion as Carrasco encouraged us to examine and question the map ourselves. As we passed around photographic reproductions of the map and debated the significance of a double-helix tree, we were struck by the dedication that appeared in the book the map scholars had produced. “To Angelina Espinosa Iglesias,” it read, “who helped bring the map back to life.” This map had been created so that others could hear the author’s stories. Lo and behold some 500 years later, here were a bunch of students trying to understand this ancient culture by engaging with the past. Now that is what a college lecture is supposed to accomplish. •