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The term "Popoloca" was applied by the Aztecs to all those nations that did not speak a tongue based on Nahuatl, more or less understandable among them. Therefore, the term had the connotation of stranger or foreigner and, at the same time, a derogatory denotation for "barbaric", "stuttering" and "unintelligent". Spaniards continued using the term in the same manner, as well as that of "chochos".
This generalisation has not allowed clarification of their historical background, which is known today as the Popoloca. Available information refers more to the geographical region inhabited by them than to the group itself.
People of Olmeca origin (another generic term), are believed to inhabited the Tehuacan region since time immemorial. Based on archaeological research, a series of phases has been established in the evolution of the region. The first, called Ajalpan, was the period between 1500 and 900 BC. There was already a sedentary settlement of small towns, whose inhabitants cultivated corn, beans, squash, avocados, and cotton, at that time.
During the second phase, called Santa Maria (900 to 200 BC), the art of pottery was developed. The historical Popolocas or Proto-Popolocas emerged, who spoke the same language and were made up of the present day Popolocas, Mazatecos, Ixcatecos, and Chuchones or Chochos, who were linguistically differentiated until this time.
During the Palo Blanco phase (200 to 700 AD), the first irrigation systems appear. There were also new crops of tomatoes and peanuts, and ceremonial centres constructed in elevated regions, with buildings having pyramidal bases, ball courts, and the manufacture of delicate, polished, orange and grey ceramics.
The last phase was Venta Salada (700 to 1540 AD). At the beginning of this period, the historical Popolocas reached their maximum splendour. Irrigation increased, through the construction of dams, waterways, and terraces. Salt mines were exploited, cotton was processed, commerce increased and domains were formed inside fortified cities, with socially stratified populations. Among these independent and antagonistic domains were, Tepeaca, Tehuacan, Tlacotoepec, Tecamachalco, Tzinacatepec, Acatepec, Caltepec, Tepexi and Cutha. It is believed that the Popoloca territory covered the southern and central parts of Puebla, the north of Oaxaca, and some parts of the east of Guerrero and the south of Tlaxcala.
Invasion of the region by the Mexicas started during the reign of Izcoatl. It caused the decline of Popoloca power. Moctezuma Ilhuicamina conquered Tlacotepec and Tzinacantepec; Ahuitzol took control of the rest, invading the Acatepec and Caltepec domains. Moctezuma Xocoyotzin finally submitted the entire region by defeating the Chieftains of Tehuacan and Tepexi. Only the Cutha domain, governed by Xopanatl, maintained its independence. The Mexicas imposed forceful tributes on the Popolocas, consisting in loads of lime, blue and black dyed blankets, deerskins, and otate canes, used as shafts for spears.
Location and Environment
Currently, the Popolca population is divided in three fractions, with no geographical continuity. One is located north-west of Tehuacan, covering part of the municipalities of Tlacotepec de Juárez, and Tepanco de Lopez. The second is south, and includes the municipalities of San Gabriel Chilac and Zapotitlan Salinas. The last is to the north of Acatlan and west of Tehuacan, and is part of the municipalities of Tepexi de Rodriguez, San Juan Ixcaquixtla Santa Ines Ahuatempan and San Vicente Coyotepec.
Each one of these zones has its own characteristics. The first, in the Tehuacan Valley, has fertile soil, though Popoloca communities are located in high mountain regions of 6500 feet, or more, above sea level, with scant useable soil. The climate is warm during summer and cold in winter. Wildlife is scarce, consisting of small mammals and reptiles. Some small pine forests exist, without the possibility of exploitation, and fruit trees, such as apples, pears, and peaches. The Mexico-Puebla-Tehuacan-Veracruz railway crosses the zone, as does a paved highway passing through the same locales and the municipal capital of Tepando. A branch road leaves here and leads to Los Reyes Mazantla. From the municipal capital of San Gabriel Chilac, another unpaved road leads to Temalacayuca. The Talcotepec road has several smaller roads leading to some Popoloca towns.
The second is found in a mountainous, semi-arid zone, a prolongation of the Oaxacan Mixteca in the municipality of Santiago Chazumba. The climate is highly contrasting and vegetation is xerophylous. Wildlife is equally scarce, similar to the first. There are some onyx and marble mines here. The main means of communication is the paved Tehuacan-Huajuapan highway, from Leon to Oaxaca, which communicates with the municipal capital of Zapotitlan Salinas. An unpaved road leaves there, going to Los Reyes Mazantla. From the municipal capital of San Gabriel Chilac, another road leads to form a junction with the previously mentioned highway.
The third zone is geographically part of the northern Upper Mixteca, which is why its climate is also extremely desert-like, with its corresponding vegetation. The soil is an accelerated state of erosion, with a scarcity of croplands and practically non-existent fauna. The main roads are the paved one that goes from Tepexi de Rodriguez to San Juan Ixcaquixtla, and the unpaved road, which leaves the first place mentioned, and goes to Acatlan.