Response from

John F. Schwaller schwallr at
Thu Jan 9 14:51:30 UTC 2003

Date: Thu, 9 Jan 2003 03:12:28 -0600
Subject: Re: Response from
From: "Ricardo J. Salvador" <salvador at>
To: Nahuat-L Discussion List <nahuat-l at>

On Monday, January 6, 2003, at 06:26 PM, <nahuatl at> wrote:

 > English is
 > my first language, and I only learned a handful of Nahuatl words as a
 > child, of which I found some of the Nahuatl words to be unique to
 > Nahuatl
 > speakers in Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico.  Perhaps the handful of Nahuatl
 > words that I learned as a child were all that remained from a now
 > disconnected past to my family’s Nahuatl speaking ancestors.  My
 > family "looks" like the "Olmecah" and I am not convinced that Olmecah
 > ever "disappeared."  Rather, I think they merely integrated with
 > incoming
 > Aztecah and other pre-existing Native peoples. [From what I
 > understand "Olmecah" is an academically applied (?) Nahuatl word to the
 > assumed, "mysterious" civilization that once ruled across Anahuac
 > (MesoAmerica).]

No need to speculate about this, at least not in a complete vacuum.
There is a growing body of evidence indicating that the people we now
call "Olmec" (you're right, a latter day label) spread in a cone,
principally along a north-south axis from the Gulf coast across the
Isthmus and toward the Pacific coast, and in fact their present-day
identity is not such a mystery any longer. It is fairly probable that
they were the direct ancestors of today's Mixe-Zoque language family.
The evidence is both archaeological and linguistic. A topical example
is a recent report by Pohl et al. (6 Dec 2002) Science 298:1984-1986,
documenting that remains found at La Venta (Tabasco) and dated to about
650 B. C., bear clear iconography associated with calendar dates and
early rebus writing (prior to this the earliest clear sign of writing
and calendrical inscriptions was from San José Mogote, Oaxaca, Zapotec
country, and dated to around 300 B. C.). These authors have compared
various developmental gradients for iconography spanning the area from
Oaxaca, through the Isthmus and Mayan country, and have found some
interesting patterns. I'll quote you a relevant passage:

"Later Mesoamerican groups borrowed heavily from Middle Formative Olmec
traditions. Writing and calendrics spread from this central Isthmian
region to Western and Eastern Mesoamerica along with new systems of
kingship based, in part, on military conquest,. Linguistic studies
support the hypothesis of the Isthmian region as the origin of the
common ancestor. Archaeological sites with evidence for the Isthmian
script have the same geographic distribution as the present-day
Mije-Soke language. Other Mesoamerican languages include Mije-Soke loan
words for "to write," "paper," "year," "to count," and "Twenty"
(denoting the vigesimal numerical system that underlies the 20-day

As for your claim of direct Olmec to Mexica transformation, it is very
unlikely for many reasons, but the principal one is that you must bear
in mind the tremendous time difference that we're talking about here.
The peak of Olmec cultural development (at least as measured by
construction and use of ceremonial centers) took place prior to the
Common Era, at least a millenium before the people who would eventually
become the Mexica were even IN Mesoamerica! The Mixe-Zoque have
persisted, as you correctly state, but their strategy was to remove to
the most recondite parts of Mexico and remain isolated. That is the
case to this day. Their domain is the "Nudo del Zempoatepetl," Espinazo
del Diablo, Selva Zoque and Bosque Los Chimalapas in today's Oaxaca and
Chiapas, very remote and inaccessible spots to this day. They had
little contact with the Mexica (they are known to this day in Oaxaca as
"the never conquered") primarily because of their isolation, but the
Mexica also probably perceived that they were dirt poor and had little
to exploit. So you see, it is not only unlikely that the transformation
or hybridization you allude took place, but any encounter that would
have taken place would have been belligerent.

BTW, if you grow up in Mexico it is part and parcel of learning to
speak that you're going to know a "handful of Nahuatl words," whether
you realize it or not, and it has very little to do with your
bloodlines. Interesting that you should mention Nahuatl in Torreón,
though. There were in fact scattered Nahuatl-speaking communities
throughout northern Mexico and into present-day New Mexico, but they
were latter-day historical artifacts of the fact that the Spaniards
took along Tlaxcaltecan people on their explorations into unknown
territory. As you know, the Tlaxcaltecans were vigorous allies of the
Spaniards in the conquest, and in the early postconquest period they
were proud to be associated with the new order and were eager to share
in the spoils of conquest (in fact, that had been part of the explicit
"deal.) There was a fabled march of 400 families from Tlaxcallan who
were taken north in the latter 16th century, specifically to colonize
the barbaric lands there. But, the Spaniards took them (their
"naborías") wherever they went (south, east and west), and usually
settled them alongside their main Spanish settlements. In fact, in
southern Mexico we know to suspect that is what happened when some
place called Analco is set by a Spanish "county seat" in the middle of
a non-nahuatl-speaking area ;-). So, though I don't know why you're
claiming the above, if by some chance you have ancestors from Torreón
who were Nahuatl speakers, they were probably descendants of
Tlaxcallans who were strong Spanish allies and intentionally travelled
north for explicit purposes of pacification and colonization. If you're
interested, read more at:

Ricardo J. Salvador          Voice: 515.294.9595
1126 Agronomy Hall         Telefax: 515.294.8146
Iowa State University        e-mail: salvador at
Ames, IA 50011-1010       WWW:

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