The Aztec people of Mexico created one of the greatest empires of the ancient Americas. While much is known about their empire located where today’s Mexico City can be found, less is known about the very start of the Aztec culture. Many consider the missing island of Aztlan to be the ancient homeland where the Aztec people began to form as a civilization prior to their migration to the Valley of Mexico. Some believe it is a mythical land, similar to Atlantis or Camelot, which will live on through legend but will never be found in physical existence. Others believe it to be a true, physical location that will someday be identified. Searches for the land of Aztlan have spanned from Western Mexico, all the way to the deserts of Utah, in hopes of finding the legendary island. However, these searches have been fruitless, as the location – and existence – of Aztlan remain a mystery.
The formation of civilization at Aztlan comes from a legend. According to Nahuatl legend, there were seven tribes that once lived at Chicomoztoc – “the place of the seven caves.” These tribes represented the seven Nahua groups: Acolhua, Chalca, Mexica, Tepaneca, Tlahuica, Tlaxcalan, and Xochimilco (different sources provide variations on the names of the seven groups). The seven groups, being of similar linguistic groups, left their respective caves and settled as one group near Aztlan. According to some accounts, the seven groups’ arrival at Aztlan was preceded by the arrival of a group known as the Chichimecas, who were considered to be less civilized than the seven Nahua groups. The Mexica were the last group to travel to Aztlan and may have been slowed down due to a lengthy drought between 1100 and 1300 AD.
The word Aztlan means “the land to the north; the land from whence we, the Aztecs, came.” It is said that eventually, the people who inhabited Aztlan became known as the Aztecs, who then migrated from Aztlan to the Valley of Mexico. Aztlan has never been physically identified, it has been described as an island. Rather than an island in the sea, it is an island within a lake. Scholars have made many attempts to locate Aztlan, in hopes of finding the place where the Aztecs, later known as Mexica, originated. Some have argued that the search for Atlantis and the search for Aztlan are one and the same, as these are simply two different names for the same land. However, this has been disputed, and many scholars searching for Aztlan believe it to be a separate land from the lost city of Atlantis.
One big mystery surrounding Aztlan is exactly how far north the area would have been located. With searches extending all the way up into Utah, it is possible that the Aztecs did not originate in Mexico at all, but that their culture was formed in an area that is now the United States, prior to their migration to the Valley of Mexico. Some have argued that if this were true, descendants of the Aztecs who are in the United States today may try to assert that they are not undocumented migrants, but descendants of the Aztecs who are merely returning to their homeland.
To this day, the actual existence of an island known as Aztlan has not been confirmed. Many have searched for the land, in hopes of having a better understanding of where the Aztecs came from, and perhaps a better understanding of ancient Mexican history. However, like other lost cities, it is not clear whether Aztlan will ever be found. Perhaps it once was an island, which has since sunk to the bottom of the lake or has somehow been altered or destroyed. Perhaps it is a land that does not exist in a physical sense and was a creation of legendary tales explaining where the Aztecs originated. For now, it remains a legendary place where the Aztecs formed and became a powerful civilization before migrating to what is now known as Mexico City.