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The Geographic Relations of New Spain

The information contained in the Relaciones Geográficas constitutes one of the most important sources of knowledge for the study of both Prehispanic (particularly the Post-classic period) and Colonial life in America. The sheer size of the source material has, in many ways, restricted access to this varied and complex wealth of information. As such, utilising computational techniques offers a unique approach to the study of these sources, considerably improving accessibility in the process.

Our corpus largely consists of the comprehensive editions of René Acuña, recently digitised and made available by the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas. Acuña compiled a considerable majority of the Relaciones Geográficas del Siglo XVI, culminating in the publication of the following editions:

René Acuña’s editions do, however, omit the province of Yucatán. We are therefore using Mercedes de la Garza’s Relaciones Histórico-geográficas de la Gobernación de Yucatán to complement the work of Acuña.

In addition, our research is drawing upon the following resources to provide further background:

Paso y Troncoso, F. del., (1905) Papeles de Nueva España. Segunda Serie Geografica y Estadística, Madrid: Establecimiento Tipográfico Sucesores de Rivadeneyra.

This collection encompasses the geographic relations compiled during the 16th century from diverse dioceses and archiepiscopates from the region of Mexico. These were edited and transcribed by Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, and although originally 8 volumes were planned, only 6 were published in 1905

Real Academia de la Historia (1900) Colección de Documentos Inéditos de las Posesiones de España en Ultramar. Segunda Serie. Madrid: Establecimiento Tipográfico Sucesores de Rivadeneyra.

This is a broad compilation of diverse historical sources located at the Archivo General de Indias, in Seville, Spain. The chosen volumes include a range of important documents with information discussing geographic, legislative and political matters, amongst others.

  • Volume 5: Documentos legislativos.
  • Volumes 9-10: Documentos legislativos.
  • Volumes 11 and 13: Relaciones de Yucatán.
  • Volumes 14 to 19: Índice general de los papeles del consejo de Indias.
  • Volumes 20 to 25: Gobernación espiritual y temporal de las Indias.

This corpus consists of more than 2.8 million words and thousands of pages. Digitised versions of the documents are available through Europeana | Google Books | Internet Archive.


Creating resources for future research


Pathways to understanding 16th century Mesoamerica‘, funded by the Department of History at Lancaster University, is a spin-off project which created a series of three ESRI StoryMaps, combining interactive texts, images and maps in a series of online interactive learning resources on the history, archaeology and geography of the Postclassic and Colonial period of Central Mexico, beginning in the 14th through to the mid-16th century.

Hover over the images below to learn more, and click the links to view each StoryMap:



The first of the story maps explores the history of the Mexica people, beginning with their journey to the foundation of Tenochtitlan in 1325, which would become (alongside its neighbour city to the north, Tlatelolco) the heart of the Triple Alliance. Following this, the story map shows how the Mexica began to expand, featuring the lists of conquered settlements as recorded in the Codex Mendoza.

This leads up to the arrival of the Spanish, and the ultimate meeting of Moctezuma II and Hernán Cortés in 1519. It then proceeds to describe how Cortés, with considerable assistance from his indigenous allies, conquered Tenochtitlan.

This story map concludes with a look at the beginning of the colonial era, exploring how the Spanish began to impose their own institutions across ‘New Spain’, with varying success due to the continuing influence of indigenous institutions across Mesoamerica.



This story map explores the nature of historic place-names across what is currently Mexico, introducing the importance of place-names and language as a tool of colonisation and empire. The story map explores how this tool was used not only by the Spanish, but also by the Mexica and the Triple Alliance (not to mention other indigenous groups), as part of their systematic colonisation of conquered settlements and people.

The story map goes on to explore how indigenous place-names continued to be used, despite the processes of colonisation at the hands of both the Triple Alliance and the Spanish. In addition, it explores the meaning of Nahua toponymy in particular – demonstrating the use of suffixes such as -tepec (which means ‘inhabited place’) and showing the distribution of some of these examples.

Following this are some case studies of individual place-names, explaining their meaning and how they have been depicted in the historical record. The story map concludes by giving a brief overview of colonial naming, and how indigenous influences have continued.



The final story map discusses depictions of geographic space and place. This starts with an explanation of why this is an important discussion, with particular reference to, and problematisation of, the use of Geographic Information Systems for representing historical geographies.

Following this, the story map introduces the idea of representations of space, which may be unfamiliar to the modern reader, and explores the various types of pre-Hispanic Nahuatl documents, including those which represented geographies.

The story map gives an introduction to the state of Spanish cartography in the sixteenth-century, before going on to discuss how the Spanish and Nahua traditions of depicting geography began to merge during the conquest of Mexico. There is considerable evidence of this merging of traditions throughout the historical record, which the story map explains, giving two specific examples.