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Ancient maps and corn help track the migrations of indigenous people


Maps are tools to show you where you are going, but they can also show you where you came from. That principle drives the work of Roberto Rodríguez and Patrisia Gonzales, who study ancient maps, oral traditions and the movement of domesticated crops to learn more about the origins of native people in the Americas.

"How do you bring memory back to a people that were told not to remember?" asks Rodríguez. As longtime scholars and syndicated columnists, Gonzales and Rodríguez explore this issue and others related to native people in the Americas. They recently entered the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences as graduate students in the life sciences communication department, and are teaching a class this summer that shows how the stories of Wisconsin’s native people fit into the larger history of the continent.

European efforts to homogenize indigenous people in the Americas destroyed much knowledge of the origins, migrations and history of different peoples, explains Rodríguez. However, some migration stories persist in oral traditions, including a central story - told in Mexico and depicted on the Mexican flag - of native people moving south from a place called Aztlán. The location of that place and the paths of movement are unclear, says Rodríguez, because people were moving around in all directions for thousands of years.

He’s trying to untangle the different paths, and trace them back to their root.

"I’m not looking for an individual answer to the question ’where did I come from,’" he adds. "Patrisia and I want to know where we as a people came from."

Rodríguez and Gonzales have pursued this question as authors, teachers, distinguished community scholars at the University of California-Los Angeles, and now as CALS graduate students. One line of inquiry has led them to study dozens of maps of what is now Central America, Mexico and the United States, created by cartographers from around the world and dating as far back as the 1500s.

"Europeans back then were fascinated with newly discovered lands and people," Rodríguez explains. Mapmakers often added notes and comments to their drawings, including references to the homelands of indigenous groups on some of the maps. One notation from the1768 Alzate map reads, "The Mexican Indians are said to have departed from the shores of this lake to found their empire," in reference to what is now the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Another shows an ancient city near the Colorado and Green rivers, also in Utah.

Rodríguez says that the maps represent a previously untapped source of information. "These maps were all in public archives," including the Wisconsin State Historical Society, says Rodríguez. "However, we could find only one other researcher that had used them, and he dealt with the topic much differently than we have. What we are pursing is not in the realm of legend or myth, but as historical fact and narrative."

Besides maps, Rodríguez and Gonzales have researched ancient chronicles, pictographs, and oral traditions. They are also studying the spread of plants-including corn and herbs-to track migration.

"I was taught to follow corn-that is who we, as a people, are," explains Rodríguez. "Looking at the story of this continent, civilization has to do with food, in this case, corn." Corn was first domesticated in southern Mexico at least 5,000 years ago, and was moved by humans across the continent, he says.

"I was drawn to Madison for grad school in part because of the name of the department, which used to be called agricultural journalism," he recalls. "The word ’agriculture’ with the journalism was a perfect fit with our ideas about corn."

Rodríguez and Gonzales have visited some of the sites indicated on the maps and have found intriguing possibilities, but no firm evidence of a single migration point, though many of the maps allude to the Salt Lake region. "What is clear," says Rodríguez, "is that the people of this region, from the Utes, Paiutes, Shoshones, Hopis and Yaquis, on south to Mexico and Central America, spoke a common language and were related. But many other people were also related via maize and trade."

Rodríguez and Gonzales recently organized a UCLA symposium ( examining the migrations and origins of native people, and displayed 40 of the ancient maps they have studied. They also spoke at a UW-Madison conference called "Who Owns America," sponsored by the Land Tenure Center.

Roberto Rodríguez | EurekAlert!
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