The Ancient Aztec Kalpulli System

An Aztec 'calpulli' (neighborhood/community), Florentine Codex Book 2

The Kalpulli System

The prefix, “KALLI-” or “house” in the indigenous Nahuatl language, stems from the word “Malinalli” (which is a braid of grass or hair) and illustrates the weaving and ordering of its strands. In the Nahuatl etymology, -ULLI or -OLLI is added as a suffix to many words that form larger ideas, such as KALPULLI. Kalpulli (spelled as “calpulli” in the European point of view documented in The Florentine Codex by Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún) roughly translates to “bringing order and strength to the structure that provides us shelter.”

Kalpulli’s are neighborhoods or social systems that organize to carry out a common purpose such as cultural activities,  educating the community, protection, or the care for community’s members.

The Basic Structure of a Kalpulli

The Kalpulli is a self-organizing and self-sustaining unit. It’s a large, but single, unit of social structure within a larger society that comes together to work in unison developing, distributing, delegating and defending  entire nations of people that have a common language and collective territory.

All in the Family

20 Households

A Kalpulli is made up of at least twenty (20) families. Geographically defined areas of the continent were also regulated through a confederation of similar social structures and interdependent nations that would send representatives to meet and make decisions. The Kalpulli system was a great example of local governance and autonomy that still granted communities that capacity to drive among other families and exchange ideas.


20 Grandmothers

Each Kalpulli has 20 great-grandmothers, with each having multiple sons that were themselves grandparents and all of them hadchildren that were parents with more children and grandchildren of their own. There is a natural division for leadership among the Kalpulli that gives women the role of approving decisions that the men execute. This generally prevailed through an elder council of men and a younger council of men that would develop laws for the safety, education, work distribution and food production or hunting activities of the group.


7 Generations

It is common for a Kalpulli to have at least seven generations within its physical and intangible boundaries. This aspect of the social system encourages each individual to see themselves as the center of the seven generations. You can know your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents and likewise you come to know your children,grandchildren, and great grandchildren in the future. With so many individual centers, the Kalpulli becomes a very complex system of community, marked by collective work and support.

Inside the System

In the Aztec empire, the social structure was organized into different levels.

  • The highest level included the cities of the Triple Alliance: Tlacopan, Tenochtitlan, and Texcoco. The top authorities in the Triple Alliance were called Huetlatoani.
  • Below the Triple Alliance were the altepetl, which were smaller city-states. They were led by a ruler known as a tlatoani (plural tlatoque) and had been conquered by the Triple Alliance.
  • The lowest and most populous social unit was the kalpulli. These were small rural villages or wards found in altepetls or cities. Each kalpulli was led by chiefs and a council of elders.
An Aztec father delivers his son to a Calmécac élite school in Tenochtitlan, Florentine Codex Book 3 (Click on image to enlarge)

In Aztec society, the altepetls were connected to the Triple Alliance and were subject to the authorities of the cities that had conquered them, such as Tlacopan, Tenochtitlan, or Texcoco. Both big and small cities were organized into kalpulli. For example, Tenochtitlan had eight distinct kalpulli within each of its four quarters. Each altepetl was made up of several kalpulli, and together, they would contribute separately and more or less equally to the common tax and service obligations of the altepetl.

In urban areas, the inhabitants of a specific kalpulli typically resided in closely clustered houses (calli), forming wards or districts. As such, the term “kalpulli” encompassed both a social group and the geographical neighborhood they inhabited. Conversely, in the rural regions of the Aztec empire, kalpulli often established their distinct villages. 

Kalpulli primarily represented extended ethnic or kinship-based groups with a shared identity, although the nature of this shared identity could vary significantly. Some kalpulli were founded on kinship ties, comprising related family units, while others were composed of unrelated individuals belonging to the same ethnic group, potentially forming migrant communities. Additionally, certain kalpulli functioned as guilds, consisting of artisans specializing in various crafts, such as medicine, goldsmiths, featherworkers, potters, weavers, or stone tool makers. It is important to acknowledge that many kalpulli possessed multiple unifying factors simultaneously, resulting in complex and diverse social structures.

Community Shapes the Culture

Within a kalpulli, the inhabitants were classified as peasant commoners, yet they actively participated in a communal system by collectively utilizing farmlands or chinampas for agriculture and engaging in fishing activities. To facilitate these tasks, individuals either worked the land themselves or employed non-connected commoners, known as macehualtin, to carry out the farming and fishing on their behalf. As a part of the larger administrative structure, the kalpulli was responsible for paying tribute and taxes to the leader of the altepetl, and in turn, the altepetl leadership remitted these payments to the Empire.

The specialised art of feather device making, Florentine Codex Book 9

 

Furthermore, kalpullis played a crucial role in shaping the cultural and military aspects of Aztec society. Each kalpulli worshiped its own patron deity and maintained a ceremonial district, which included administrative buildings and a temple for religious practices. Additionally, some kalpullis operated small markets for the exchange of goods, fostering economic activity within their communities. They operated their own military schools, known as telpochcalli, where young men received education and training. These men formed cohesive units when called upon for warfare, demonstrating the collective strength of their respective kalpulli.

Although the kalpullis occupied the lowest rung in the organized social groups of Aztec society, it is essential that we note they were not impoverished or devoid of influence within the broader societal framework. Disparities among kalpullis were evident, with some controlling lands encompassing a few acres, providing a degree of economic prosperity. Moreover, certain kalpullis enjoyed access to the highest quality of goods/services, while others did not share the same privileges. Artisans, too, could find opportunities for employment under the patronage of rulers or affluent nobles, leading to generous compensation for their creative goods/ services. 

The ruler gives gifts to his people, Florentine Codex Book 8

The Power of the People

Interestingly, commoners from kalpullis wielded a considerable amount of influence in regional power struggles. An example of this can be seen in the success of a populist uprising originating in a kalpullis in Coatlan. The movement sought assistance from the Triple Alliance to overthrow an unpopular ruler, effectively demonstrating the significance of kalpullis-based actions in shaping the political landscape.

The presence of kalpullis-based military garrisons was not without risks, nevertheless, as their loyalty required “proper” acknowledgment. Military leaders would offer substantial compensation to prevent extensive looting of conquered cities, underscoring the strategic importance of maintaining a cohesive and contented force. 

In the realm of religious practices, kalpullis members played integral roles in society-wide spiritual/cultural ceremonies. Notably, kalpullis with a focus on crafts such as sculpting, painting, weaving, and embroidery actively participated in ceremonies dedicated to the goddess Xochiqetzal. These ceremonial events were often public in nature, emphasizing the active involvement of kalpullis members in the performance of rituals.

It is evident that the kalpullis, despite their position at the lowest echelon of the societal hierarchy, held significant economic, political, and religious significance, and their contributions played a pivotal role in shaping various aspects of Aztec society.

Keep reading →

Sources:

ThoughtCo.com

Calpulli: The Fundamental Core Organization of Aztec Society – Edited by K. Kris Hirst

https://www.thoughtco.com/calpulli-core-organization-of-aztec-society-170305

Egalitarian Ideology and Political Power in Prehispanic Central Mexico: The Case of Tlaxcallan

Fargher, Lane F., Richard E. Blanton, and Verenice Y. Heredia Espinoza. “Egalitarian Ideology and Political Power in Prehispanic Central Mexico: The Case of Tlaxcallan.” Latin American Antiquity 21.3 (2010): 227–51. Print.

The Aztecs Paid Taxes, Not Tribute.

Smith, M. E. (2014). The Aztecs Paid Taxes, Not Tribute. Mexicon, 36(1), 19–22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43857654 

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