The Nahua calli of ancient Mexico: household, family, and gender
©Robert McCaa (
posted August 27, 1999
Department of History, University of Minnesota

Household and Family in Past Time
Palma de Mallorca, September 9-11, 1999

Mesoamerican collective enterprises have never easily fit into the categories of social structure developed to describe societies elsewhere in the world.—Monaghan (1996:192)

The Nahua household system.

If European families may be divided into two great systems—nuclear or shallow stems in Western Europe and joint in the East (Hajnal 1983) 1 and if Japanese families constitute a third system consisting of vertically aligned patrilineal descent groups (Saito 1998), the Nahua (Aztec) of ancient Mexico constitute a fourth: a joint-compound bilateral system of co-residence. The "twenty-fifth house" in a ward belonging to the district of Quauchichinollan illustrates the complexity of Nahua households—what the Nahua themselves considered joint living. The following description, transcribed and translated by the ethnohistorian S.L. Cline, is from a census circa 1540 carried out by village scribes writing in Nahuatl:

[Q123] Twenty-fifth house [calli].
Here is the home [nichan icha] of Tecpanecatl, not baptized. His wife is named Teicuh, not baptized. He has three children. The first is named Tecapan, born twenty years ago. The second is named Yaotlatoa. He has taken a wife. His wife is named Necahual. They have been married three years. They do not yet have children. The third of Tecpanecatl’s children is named Cihuatemoatl, born six years ago. Tecpanecatl’s wife has three younger siblings. The first is named Teyacapan. Her husband is named Cuima. S/he has one child, named Centehua, born seven years ago. Tecpantecatl just feeds them all together. They all produce what they eat jointly, and they take turns with the tribute labor. The second [of Tecpanecatl’s wife’s younger siblings] is named Nochhuetl. He has taken a wife. His wife is named Xocoyotl. They have been married two years. They have not yet had children. Here is the third of Tecpanecatl’s wife’s younger siblings, named Cecihuatl. Her husband died last year. Here is Tecpanecatl’s mother-in-law, named Necahual. She is just a little old woman. Her husband died ten years ago. When one of these has gone on tribute labor, the others go on making a living. They just [unite] the product of their work. Here is his field: 10 matl. They just do his tribute jointly. Every 80 days he delivers one quarter-length of a Cuernavaca cloak. His provisions tribute that he owes is that also every 80 days he delivers one quarter-length of a tribute cloak and one quarter-length of a narrow cloak, so that in one year it is one Cuernavaca cloak, one tribute cloak, and one narrow cloak; no turkey hens, no cacao, no turkey eggs, no chiles, no shelled maize, no provisions. Thirteen are included in one house [caltica] (Cline 1993:211).

Compounded in this example of thirteen individuals residing in a single household are two extensive families consisting of several conjugal units (Figure 1). The exact number depends upon definitions. The Laslett/Hammel scheme, which strictly defines the conjugal family unit as a triad of husband, wife and child, yields only two. Louis Henry might count five because he favored a more relaxed definition such that any dyad of the three suffices as a conjugal family unit (1967:44-45).2 G. William Skinner (1997:56) proposes to revive Henry’s definition of family, continuing a century old tradition (Smith 1968 5:304). Skinner characterizes a compound system as one where multiples of stem and joint families, defined as at least two parts of the simple family triad, are common. Laslett/Hammel require at least two tripartite conjugal family units to qualify as a multiple or stem family. For a past when mortality was high and childlessness common, Laslett/Hammel’s downgrading of bits of conjugal units to something less than families may obscure fundamental features of social organization.

Skinner’s approach creates a more inclusive space for the joint-compound family system like that of the Nahua of sixteenth century Mexico, where dyads are common, as in Household twenty-five. For this population of 2,503 individuals the Laslett/Hammel system yields 397 conjugal family units. The Henry/Skinner definition almost doubles the number, adding 392 dyads: 276 childless couples, 111 widows with children, and five widowers, excluding 46 widows and 9 widowers who have no coresident children.

Bilateral residence patterns prevailed among the Nahua, as in household twenty-five, with both uxorilocal and virilocal components. Whether in this case the founding conjugal unit, the remnants of which are the mother-in-law and her children, was uxori-, viri-, or neolocal is difficult to infer from the document, but the complexity of Nahua household structure is readily apparent, as is the high frequency of childlessness.

The Nahua and the household and family canon.

The rule for ordinary people of ancient Mexico was the compound household, including joint or multiple families living around a single patio, as the ethnohistorian Pedro Carrasco demonstrated more than three decades ago (1964a:373). Ignored by family historians, the work of Carrasco, Hinz, Kellogg, Smith, Cline and others emphsizes the maze of kin ties in early sixteenth-century Nahua households (e.g., Carrasco 1964a, 1964b, 1976, 1993; Hinz et al. 1983; Kellogg 1986; Smith 1993; Cline 1993). Table 1 lists the twenty-seven most common kin relations in the lists for the villages of Huitzillan and Quauhchichinollan, near Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos. The profusion of kin ties within rural Nahua households is remarkable. Carrasco’s findings and more recent transcriptions of other Morelian censuses readily disprove the uniformitarian canon that the nuclear family was always the norm for ordinary people everywhere and for all time as espoused in the bible for family historians, Household and Family in Past Time (Laslett and Wall, 1972:xi; for contrasting views see Flandrin 1979; Kertzer 1982; Wall 1982; Anderson 1985; Segalen 1986; King and Preston 1990; Hareven 1991; Smith 1993; Ruggles 1994; and Anderson 1995).

This founding myth of revisionist family history was based on the fallacy of demographic determinism: that in the past high mortality destroyed most three generation households before they could materialize (Levy 1965:49). Carrasco’s data on the Nahua readily refute this dogma. Nahua mortality in the early decades of the sixteenth century was probably worse than any seen in Europe since the Black Death, yet many ordinary people in ancient Mexico lived in compound multi-generation households. As will be seen, the complexity of Nahua households was a product of extremely precocious, nearly universal marriage wholly unlike Western European marriage patterns. In Huitzillan and Quauhchichinollan vertically extended units of three generations or more encompassed exactly half the population (Table 2). Among two generation households fully three-fourths contain lateral extensions. Only 13.5% of all households were simple, consisting solely of parents and children.

Household and family terms.

Anthropological studies of the Nahuatl speaking peoples of central Mexico characterize the Nahua household system as joint (Carrasco 1964a and 1976; Harvey 1986; Cline 1993), stem (Robichaux 1997a, b), or even complex (Kellogg 1986, 1993, 1995a, b). It seems to me that according to conventional definitions of family studies neither joint nor stem is sufficient to describe the compound character of Nahua households with their intricate hierarchical mazes encompassing multiple components in varying degrees of subordination to the household head. The problem is not merely one of classification, but rather understanding the nature and identity of fundamental social intercourse in ancient Mexico before it was transformed through interaction with Christian zealots, Spanish settlers, and colonial administrators.

Compound is a term little used by family historians, but among family social scientists the term has a distinguished and continuing tradition. The authoritative International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences describes the compound family as "an amalgamation of nuclear family units or parts of them, including polygynous and step-children" (Smith 1968 5:304). The term "compound" refers to a union of parts, with an emphasis on the act of fusing, bonding, melding and merging. Smith contrasts compound with joint family systems. Borrowing from a century-old definition, he characterizes joint as one where "two or more lineally related kinsfolk of the same sex, their spouses and offspring occupy a single homestead and are jointly subject to the same authority or single head" (Smith 1968 5:308).

This conventional definition of joint families does not accurately describe Nahua households because while married kin clustered together with great regard to gender, no gendered rule was absolute. Then too, European joint family systems bear little resemblance to that of the Nahua with their much more profuse combinations of co-resident conjugal units. Among the ancient Nahua, married brothers were more likely to reside with one another than with married sisters, but this was in part due to the large gap in marriage age between males and females. What is most remarkable about Nahua households is the great profusion of kin types clustered together in a single residence. Whether ties were uxorilocal or virilocal does not seem to have mattered much to the Nahua, nor did lineage or ancestor worship.

On the other hand, Nahuatl descriptions of households invariably highlight the word "joint" and the commonality of household activities. "They pay the tribute jointly" or "they pay no tribute yet" are common refrains. "They all produce what they eat jointly" recurs frequently in the censuses. "Their wives make it jointly", "they just do their tribute together", "they just share the tribute", "they just do it jointly", "he just feeds them all as a unit", "all of them do the tribute jointly", "they just produce his tribute jointly"—these linguistic clues provide telling insights on how native peoples perceived the functioning of Nahua households. Yet, the Nahuatl meaning of the term "joint" should not be confused with modern scholarly canon, where this word has a narrow, technical definition. Carrasco’s use of joint is wholly understandable from his solidly grounded ethnohistorical work with Nahuatl linguistics and from his insightful translations of Nahuatl texts into Spanish and English. The notion of jointness, union, or togetherness thoroughly infuses Nahua household listings. Nonetheless Carrasco’s usage causes some puzzlement to anthropologists and historians trained in technical definitions of family systems. For Carrasco the term refers to "more than one married man each with his wife" (cited in Kellogg 1986:116). Kellogg reasons that this definition is not conventional and prefers instead to characterize Nahua households as complex. Her argument, persuasive on technical grounds of classification systems, gains additional power when applied to the Nahua. Intricate, elaborate, tangled, hierarchical, subordinate, complex, compound—as we shall see, all are important features of the Mexica’s strongly gendered, age-graded system of household relationships. On the other hand, why should the usage of "joint" be constrained by a technical definition that dates back barely a century when the Nahua have used the notion to characterize fundamental social interactions that go back at least five hundred years?

The Nahua did have a notion of family, but they had no single term for it. Conjugal units are clearly delineated within households, whether the censuses are pictographs or listings. The example in Figure 2 from the 1550s illustrates how the legacy of pictographic records was maintained after the Spanish conquest (Williams and Harvey 1997:73, 147). The household record begins with the Nahuatl glyph for calli (household), followed by glyphs for the head and spouse. This household contains three conjugal units and fourteen individuals. All are kin. Nahuatl censuses, almost without exception, cluster parents with their children, whose own spouses and offspring are likewise depicted together. In a separate pictographic register land allotments are recorded for each household and conjugal unit, following the same order as the population register (see lower panel of Figure 2). The ideal was a continuous register for each village, showing births, deaths (darkened faces), migration, marriages, and even illness as well as the assignment of plots. No dates were recorded however, confounding historical or demographic analysis.

Fortunately, written lists for the villages studied here were probably transcribed from pictographs over a short period of time and then no further amendments were made. The listings reveal the importance of the calli and the great diversity of kin ties in most households. These censuses, dating from the late 1530s or early 1540s, reflect real conditions, as opposed to ideal constructs. The enumerations were authentic Nahuatl records, not imposed Eurocentric inventions. The documents were probably prepared at the behest of Spanish authorities, but were carried out according to Nahua custom (note the lack of dates) by native scribes, writing in Nahuatl on fig-bark paper using native inks. They read like pictographs. The ethnolinguist Sarah Cline, who transcribed and translated these documents, considers them to be the earliest, large corpus of authentically Nahuatl texts written in Roman script (1993:3). The result is an anthropological gem from the early modern era: a census-like snapshot of two Nahua villages from the earliest years of Spanish conquest and colonization (Cline 1993:11). Each household is clearly designated by an initial phrase, which seems to correspond to the glyph for calli (Table 3). Ninety-four percent of all households are identified by one of four phrases: "Here is the home of…" (56%), "Here is the householder named ..." (16%), "Here is the home of some people..." (13%), or "The tribute payer is named..." (8%). Most entries conclude with a phrase specifying the number of people in the household. The governing class and their dependent households are also identified, constituting three percent of all units: six governors, two tribute collectors, one guard, and one "who belongs to the tlatoani." The living arrangements described in the census lists correspond closely to archaeological evidence developed for the same region, where the average size of excavated ground-level houses has been estimated at fourteen square meters (Smith 1993:199-201).

While in some ways Nahuatl linguistic concepts for family, emphasizing co-residence, kin ties, and communal activities, were remarkably similar to that of the English household, the composition of Nahua households was notably different, as we have seen. Kellogg, citing Carrasco, concludes: "[t]he Nahuatl words for family are mostly descriptive terms that refer to common residence and thus correspond more exactly to the English ‘household’: cencalli (‘one house’), cencaltin (‘those in one house’), cemithualtin (‘those in one yard’), techan tlaca (‘people in someone’s dwelling’), cenyeliztli (literally, ‘one stay’)"(Kellogg 1993:211; see also Schroeder 1998:345). The ethnohistorian and Nahuatlato James Lockhart observes that the Nahua used a series of words for family that "emphasize the setting in which a joint life takes place, not the origin of the relationships between those living together" (Lockhart 1992:59). Lockhart summarizes his thinking on the Nahua household in the following terms:

If the effective minimum unit in Nahua society seems to approach ‘household’ more than ‘family’, the core residents of the household were nevertheless still consanguineal and affinal kin. ... But as a last reminder of the pervasiveness of the Nahua emphasis on household, on the fact of being together rather than the rationale for being together, let it be said that the predominant term for ‘relative’ in Nahuatl is huanyolque, ‘those who live with one’ (Lockhart 1992:72)

Kellogg concurs with Lockhart along with Carrasco and Cline in emphasizing the role of the Nahua household as a fundamental unit of Nahua society and culture. According to Kellogg, "[c]lassical Nahuatl conceptualized the household as a culturally and socially significant unit, the terms for which express the importance of both where family life took place and the oneness and common identity of the inhabitants" (1995:169). The Nahua household was an amalgam, consisting of several conjugal units and solitary individuals, almost invariably related to the head by kinship, however remote.

Nahua census lists and household systems.

The multiple family household was the norm in sixteenth-century rural Mexico. These listings show almost half the population (1,246 of 2,503 enumerated), male and female alike, living in households where they were related to the head but were not the head’s spouse or offspring (Table 1). Nearly one-half of the population lived as extended kin, either consanguineal or affinal, of the head. Less than two percent lived in households where they lacked a kin tie with the head (or for whom no tie could be determined due to the deterioration of the document). Of the remainder, among males, one-fourth were heads of household and an identical fraction were sons of heads.

For females there were two principal exceptions to this pattern. First, females were almost invariably spouses of the head, not heads themselves (Table 4). In only one instance was there a married female head whose husband was listed as spouse (Cline 1993:40-41, 311: "Here is [a goodly maiden] named Tecapan."). Second, more females lived as wives of heads than as daughters. The low fraction of offspring, whether male or female, has always been attributed to the demographic catastrophe of conquest. I argue that it was instead the result of the nearly universal practice of child marriage and, to a minor extent, to the fact that a few Nahua males took multiple wives (McCaa 1996).3 Marriage for Nahua females was precocious, by any standard. The mean age at marriage for females in these villages was well below thirteen years. Cline cites, indeed questions the transcription of, the telling case of a girl who at age eight had already been married for four years: "The third [child] is named Necahual, now eight years old. Her husband [sic] is named Acopa. They have been married four years" (Cline 1993:139; the translation and textual interpolations are Cline’s).

Child marriage would have been a great obstacle to neolocal residence, because girls younger than twelve or thirteen were physically incapable of grinding the corn needed for the daily mess of tortillas much less discharging the full range of wifely duties.4 Then too, what Cline refers to as "patriuxoridomestic residence", was much more common than patrivirilocal residence.5 In the censuses studied here, there were 75 married daughters living under the tutelage of fathers, compared with only 36 married sons. This disparity was due in part to the fact that at first marriage, males were seven years older on average than females and that daughters, marrying at a rather tender age, remained in the parental household (McCaa 1996). Husbands were more likely to move into their fathers-in-law’s households.6

The twenty-fifth house, Tecpanecatl’s home, illustrates the intricate interplay between marriage and residence rules. It would appear that some twenty years ago when Teicuh married Tecpanecatl, her husband moved into his father-in-law’s household. Ten years later at the death of his father-in-law, Tecpanecatl as the oldest male in the household and the father of two children, became head. A few years later, Teicuh’s brothers and sisters began to marry. If she had others they left the natal household either through death or migration, but the three who remained and married could not claim headship due to their younger age and fewer children. As Tecpanecatl’s own children ("he has three children") neared the age of maturity, at least one married and remained in what had become his father’s household.

Bilateral households.

Fully bilateral households like that of Tecpanecatl were relatively uncommon among the Nahua at any one moment, such as in a census snapshot. In Huitzillan and Quauhchichinollan this type constituted only ten percent of 310 households where relationship to head is known for every individual. Also infrequent on the other hand, were simple or nuclear families, consisting of husband, wife and their children. Simple nuclear families sheltered less than 15% of the population, but the very conception of nuclear family is an artificial construct unknown to the Nahua because the compound family was the norm (Schroeder 1998:345). Although virilocality was the most common mode of residence (58%), uxorilocal households made up a substantial minority. This suggests that most individuals, over the life course, were likely to live in households of varying degrees of complexity. If the most complex forms were perhaps fleeting, extraordinary amalgams were not unusual. Most Nahua probably expected to live surrounded by kin, and subordinated to them, through most phases of the life course.

Focussing on individuals rather than households tells us who lived with whom and effectively unveils the bilateral, compound qualities of rural Nahua living arrangements. If 58% of households were virilocal, only 49% of individuals lived in them. Some 39% of the population lived uxorilocally. A substantial fraction of the population was made up of affinal kin: 47% of males and 59% of females. Many more widows lived in households under the dominion of a son-in-law than under a son (n=40 vs. 26). Likewise sons-in-law more often displaced the older generation from headship than sons (10:4). This difference is partially explained by the age gap at marriage between males and females. High mortality also played a significant role because many fathers died before their sons reached marriageable age. Orphanhood occurred early in life. Fifteen percent of children aged 5-9 had already lost their fathers, equivalent to a life expectancy of birth of less than twenty years (McCaa 1996 Table 5).

Nahua and gender.

If one of the fundamental principles of patriarchal systems is that "the senior male controls and protects everyone in the household" (Dore 1997:105), then the Nahua of ancient Mexico offer an intriguing case for theorizing on family and gender in Latin America. Capitalism, Catholicism or another European import is often blamed for this social pathology, but patriarchy was not unknown to the Nahua. Gender mattered a great deal for the Nahua, but there is no scholarly consensus on the nature of relations between the sexes. While most writers agree that "women were subordinate to men" (Cline 1993:40), the meaning of that subordination is disputed (Burkhart, 1992; Rodriguez-Shadow and Shadow 1996). Kellogg argues that parallelism and symmetry were fundamental features of gender relations and that complementary elements outweighed hierarchical ones (1995a:564; 1997:125; see also Schroeder 1998). Kellogg’s studies of native women are based on exhaustive readings of a large corpus of sixteenth century notary and judicial documents. Many were written in Nahuatl, and thanks to the labors of Kellogg and others we are privileged to hear the native voices of ordinary people.

Yet too often the study of Nahua gender relations centers on the capital, Tenochtitlán, and neighboring urban complexes, while the vast countryside goes unexplored. With the great majority of the Nahua population residing in rural areas, much of the urban evidence is simply beside the point. While published texts are much more abundant for the urban core of the empire, the rural districts, where most people lived, should not be ignored (Smith 1992:3). It is possible that in the center there was more parallelism and complementarity with less hierarchy, although Rodriguez-Shadow (1991, 1996) argues otherwise. From an examination of the conventional published texts, she concludes that Aztec women were devalued and dominated by males. Her analysis, with its discussion of schools, tianguis (markets), and temples, also focuses on the urban scene, yet it seems to me that the evidence for Rodriguez-Shadow’s thesis is even stronger in the countryside, where the position of women was decidedly subordinate, if the Morelos censuses are reliable guides.

Cline, after studying these census lists with respect to household headship, polygamy, age at marriage, women’s position in the household, and work, concludes that on the whole Nahua women were subordinated to men (Cline 1993:31-42). Of 315 households in Cline’s study only three were headed by women, and in two cases female tenure was clearly transitory. The few female household heads were all recently widowed (aside from the case of the goodly maiden), and none had a married child present in the household (Cline 1993:40-41). In most cases, widowed mothers were listed as subordinate to sons or sons-in-law, often young and recently married. Widows seem to have been almost barred from remarrying because they made up nearly one-fifth of the adult female population while for widowers the fraction was less than one-fiftieth. Widowed women (and the few recorded as abandoned) remained under the hegemony of males—sons, in-laws, more distant kin, or even brothers as in the case of Necahual. "Here is Panchimalcatl’s younger sibling, name Necahual, not baptized. She is just a widow. Her husband died last year. She has no children. She just helps Panchimalcatl with the weaving, and in this way she is fed by him for it" (Cline 1993:203). Men, on the other hand, readily remarried, typically with young virgins, and thereby could retain control of a multiple family household.

A few men did not wait for a wife to die before taking another. Only males enjoyed access to more than one spouse (concubine), although the incidence of polygamy was low in the rural communities studied here, involving only sixteen women and four men, all local leaders. Consider the tlatoani (village leader) of Huitzillan. Don Tomás (already baptized) had a wife. He also had seven children (an eighth is described as "separately engendered"), six concubines (three baptized; all are listed together with no distinction of progeny), and two dependents—both female—a widow, the mother of two young daughters, and a ten year old girl (Cline 1993:111). In Quauhchichinollan the local leader Don Martín, baptized but unmarried, claimed three concubines (one baptized), but only one child, a two year old. He was accompanied by his mother (listed with her female slave), an aunt who served as "his noble woman," three young unmarried brothers, and six servants (Cline 1993:133).

When scholars discuss Aztec marriage, polygamy receives inordinate treatment even though its frequency of occurrence is easily exaggerated (Bernand and Gruzinski 1996:164). Polygamy was almost exclusively a prerogative of nobles, if we may generalize from the Morelos evidence. Yet, the possibility of a husband taking a second wife, or simply abandoning the first (n=5) must have a remained a lingering uncertainty in the minds of ordinary women. Abandonment ("She is just an abandoned person; she was married someplace else"—Cline 1993:139), like widowhood, meant loss of status, submission to male kin, being listed out-of-order as the last in a household.

For ordinary married women, demographic data on households adds somber hues to the portrayal of gender relations among the Nahua. Marriage, which in these texts meant cohabitation with the expectation of child-bearing, was extremely precocious for females, averaging less than thirteen years, substantially less than what historians have dared to surmise heretofore (McCaa 1996:18-31). If adulthood is attained at marriage, almost all Nahua females completed this transition by age 15. Since most males did not attain adulthood until their twenties (male mean age at marriage in these villages is estimated at 19.4 years), this left a large age gap of almost seven years between spouses, a significant difference given the extreme youthfulness of brides. Perhaps this was tempered by the fact that many young brides remained in the paternal home, with the groom moving into the bride’s father’s household. Other young brides shifted from the dominion of their fathers to that of their husbands, who were often themselves under the tutelage of a brother. In either case these transitions generally happened before the bride reached the age of biological maturity. Childlessness among Nahua couples was largely a matter of adolescent subfecundity, but it is unlikely that young girls had much say in the timing of marriage or the choice of spouse. Parents or kin must have made these decisions, or perhaps bold young males simply "took" their women. For females, autonomy within the household came with widowhood, if at all. Indeed, few widows maintained an independent household for long. For most, dominion passed to a son, or more frequently, to a son-in-law, brother, brother-in-law, or more distant male kin.

If patriarchy is defined as the "manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family" (Lerner 1986:239), then the Nahua evolved a particularly relentless species of this phenomenon. Were patriarchal structures uncommon among the Nahua (Schroeder 1998:345), or was patriarchy the most significant organizing principle of Nahua households? If not patriarchy, what explains the absence of female household heads, the tender age at which girls began to cohabit, the relatively late marriage of males, the fact that widowers were much more likely to remarry than widows, or the hierarchical ordering of coresidence by marital status and gender? Male dominance would seem to be the simplest explanation. More than half of all married couples lived under the tutelage of others (males), because marriage was not inevitably neolocal. As we have seen Nahua patterns of marriage and coresidence were not random (Table 4). Fathers and brothers husbanded males in the household—their sons and other brothers. Fathers were much more successful in retaining married daughters (and their husbands, n=77), than sons (and their wives, n=37). Married brothers stayed together but somewhat fewer married sisters remained under the authority of a brother (n=98:64).

Young males and females of marriageable age were not distributed randomly within households either. Fathers used unmarried daughters to draw males into the household, but brothers did not or could not. Half of all daughters of marriageable age (10 years of age or older) were in households headed by their fathers, but the proportion was less than 40% for sons. There were only five unmarried sisters above ten years of age living in households headed by their brothers, but there were 38 brothers in this situation (excluding the heads themselves).

Mortality, specifically of patriarchs, was the lubricant in this system, providing the flexibility for first one gendered code of marriage and residence to apply and then another. Conventional studies of household and family give relatively little consideration to the dynamics of gender within households, except for headship. Where neolocality is the rule, the timing of marriage and who marries whom provide insights on family and gender, but when coresidence of married couples is common as among the Nahua, the analysis must probe deeply inside the household. Some of the differences briefly catalogued here were due to demography—for example, the fact that married sons were more likely to be orphaned than married daughters—but even these are due in part to the workings of a finely tuned, age-graded, socially constructed system of gender dominance and subordination.

Marriage: uxorilocality, virilocality and neolocality.

At marriage, daughters were more likely than sons to have a living father (Table 4). Daughters married earlier than sons, and husbands of females who still resided with their fathers were likely to be older than their wives’ brothers. Sons were disadvantaged in the contest to become head by the fact that their sisters began to marry at a considerably younger age. Thus the husband of a daughter, older than her brothers, was more likely to ascend to headship than his wife’s brothers (8:3). More sons were likely to marry and live in the household of a father-in-law than in their father’s own household (75:36). For similar reasons a mother was more likely to live under the headship of a son-in-law than a son.

Some sons did marry while under the tutelage of their fathers (n=36). Then with the death of a father and as they aged, they married and remained in households headed by their brothers (n=98) or brothers-in-law (n=63).7 Few sisters lived under the dominion of brothers as already noted, but a large number of recently married girls lived under the headship of their brothers-in-law (n=106) because of the gendered age pattern at marriage, residence and mortality. The tangling of household relationships did not end with sons and daughters. A sizeable fraction of sisters of the male head’s wife were also married and resided with their husbands under the tutelage of brothers-in-law (n=38). Age at marriage and mortality, rather than any rule prohibiting co-residences of this type explain why this was more common for siblings of the spouse than of the head (38:14). Married nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles were also common (n=30:31). Occurring only once were 52 additional relationships, such as wife of a brother-in-law’s brother-in-law, mother-in-law’s sister’s sister-in-law, brother-in-law’s niece’s spouse, step-brother-in-law’s step-mother-in-law and other such extraordinarily perplexing combinations that fall beyond the ken of any Eurocentric family system.

Eleven married couples lived in a form of dependency known as tribute helper or dependent and were not related to the head or any of his kin. As Table 4 shows even tribute helpers lived with married kin although they too were dependents. Tribute helpers seem to have taken the place of relatives. Of eight households with tribute helpers six were simple conjugal families, with no other married kin present.

The profuse combinations of co-resident married couples should leave little doubt that stem families were rare among the Nahua. Scarcely four percent of all households were classic patriarchal stem families of father, wife, married son and his celibate brothers and sisters (n=13). In one of these, headship had already passed to the married son. There were as many men who headed households that contained their married sisters’ families as there were strictly defined stem families. If widowed mothers (3), mothers-in-law (7), and sons-in-law (20) are counted as stems or remnants thereof, the number of virilocal stems doubles. The number quadruples if multiple stems are accepted—with two or more married sons or daughters under the headship of a father. The frerche was also a frequent combination (n=52), without counting the presence of two or more married sisters (n=14) or multiple married brothers or sisters-in-law (n=34).

According to the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, kin systems which use possessives as a means of expressing kin relationships often have "a wide range, sometimes encompassing the entire social group..." (Egan 8:390). This describes the Nahua whose kin relations radiate outward from an ego in contrast to kin systems based on ancestor worship or lineage (Egan 8:406). Inclusive, bilateral systems, such as that of the Nahua, incorporate both patri- and matrilineal ties. Kellogg emphasizes the cognatic character of Nahua kinship in which descent is expressed through both female and male links. She concludes that cognatic descent groups, such as among the Nahua, make for "tremendous fluidity in identification and membership" (Kellogg 1986:109, 105-106). Kellogg cautions that the "prevalence of complex units probably should not be viewed as a response to disruption [of the conquest]", but instead a reflection of fundamental structures of the Nahua social system, structures that persisted through the sixteenth century (1986:117).

Ancient and Modern Mexico compared.

Almost five centuries after conquest, according to the census of 1990, compound families still exist in rural Morelos, the region studied by Carrasco, Hinz and Cline. Figure 3 compares a household from 1540 transcribed and translated by Cline (1993:281 H#87) with one from the computerized microdata sample of the 1990 census (INEGI 1994). Both examples are large three-generation households, containing several conjugal unions. The sixteenth century household reveals the ravages of mortality tempered by the flexibility of culture. This household contains four conjugal unions, two broken by death. While six unmarried children reside in the household, only three are offspring of the head and his current (or previous) wife. The greatest lateral extension is matrilineal, the widowed sister and unmarried brother of the wife of the head. A patrilineal connection is present too, although it is not an offshoot of the household head’s lineage. Instead we find the head’s niece’s husband accompanying his unmarried brother and widowed sister-in-law and her unmarried daughter.

In contrast, the modern family of 1990 (now, one can speak of family rather than household as in the sixteenth century) shows no signs of mortality, but points to the continued acceptance of married children in the household. Two daughters (one aged 14 years) and a son reside in free union with their spouses and with four of their own children, grandchildren of the head. A fifth couple is unrelated to the head. The household also contains the head’s unmarried son aged 15 and daughter aged 10. While these cases are genuine, the example for 1990 is not representative. A simple table reveals the great differences in household contexts in which people of the two eras lived ( Table 5). In central Mexico of almost a half a millennium ago, kin ties were ubiquitous. Nearly half the population resided in households with at least three generations present. Likewise, half the population resided as extended kin of the head, without taking into account members of the head’s own conjugal unit. Thus, very few people in these villages—less than two percent—did not live with kin.

In modern Mexico few remnants of this pre-Hispanic household system survive. The nuclear family reigns supreme, the residential locus for nine-tenths of the population of rural Morelos, according to 1990 census microdata for the same region as the two sixteenth century villages analyzed here (Table 5). Extended kin of the head no longer constitute a significant fraction of the population (6%), and while the proportion of individuals unrelated to the head has doubled, it still does not amount to much (4%). By 1990 the complex, joint family-household had become a sociological fossil, even in rural Morelos, where 450 years before it was the norm. Indeed, the ancient Nahua household was even more complex than the "classical family of Western nostalgia," ridiculed by Laslett and his revisionists as a demographic impossibility, the invention of unsophisticated family historians (Smith 1993:325). In modern Mexico, the few examples of compound households that remain are virilocal, patriarchal stem families.

Even the idea of what constituted the Nahua household has become blurred. Today, the structure of rural families in modern Mexico is more closely akin to the virilocal, patrilineal stem families of the Basque region (Arrizabalaga 1997; Reher 1997) than to the ancient Nahua, although at least one ethnohistorian will dispute this claim (Robichaux 1997a, b). While some ethnohistorians of the modern era may project a timeless patrilineal, virilocal stem family back to a remote past, few students of the sixteenth century would recognize the household structures of modern Mexico. No longer does the patriarch "just feed them all together" or "they eat jointly". The calli (great compound households) of the sixteenth century exist only as isolated remnants in twentieth century Mexico. While a few well-chosen examples may be located, these are almost entirely virilocal stem family systems (Smith 1992:405-9). The "Mesoamerican family [should it not be household?] system" is a pale reflection of the patterns of the past. The family system of "México profundo" is supposedly characterized by four traits: virilocal residence, transmission of the homestead to the youngest son, a high incidence of extended families, and the presence of contiguous houses headed by male kindreds (Robichaux 1997b:187).

As we have seen centuries ago only the third and fourth of these traits were common among the Nahua (or among Mesoamerican Maya—see Restall 1998:357). The ancient Nahua system was bilateral, not virilocal. To imagine this model for the past (Robichaux 1997b:193), one must also deny the importance of bilateral kin ties, a fundamental feature of the classic Nahua household. Ultimogeniture would have been impossible in the sixteenth century. The youngest offspring was invariably an infant upon the death of the father because most continued to procreate until death. Few survived the childbearing years. Nor is the use of the concept of developmental cycle helpful for studying the family system of the ancient Nahua (Robichaux 1997a 149), because the multiple family household was ubiquitous. To salvage the pre-Hispanic compound, complex or joint family for the present, the term "non-residential" must be appended to extended family. The fact remains that in the pre-Hispanic past kin resided together, jointly sharing many daily activities, preparing and eating tortillas, cultivating corn, collecting cotton, weaving cloth, delivering tribute and paying taxes. The joint family was a historical reality, which today remains, if at all, as an imagined cultural ideal.