Pátzcuaro . . . an astonishing discovery made on a 50-year-old color slide

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

Pátzcuaro, Michoacán – July 28, 1970

One Summer In Mexico – Part 28

It is an example of the power of 21st century technology, when analyzing historic buildings & prehistoric cities.

The ancient city of Pátzcuaro is located 163.52 mi (263.16 km) west of Mexico City in the State of Michoacán.  It was founded around 1330 AD by an enigmatic indigenous people, known by their Spanish name of Tarascano in 1970, but are now known by their indigenous name of Purepeche.  Actual spelling of the word is P’urhépecha.  The Purepeche are believed to have originated in Peru, perhaps beginning their migration northward in response to Moche Culture oppression.

The Purépecha were the only known indigenous people in the Americas to enter the Bronze Age.  They perfected the creation of bronze weapons and tools about 70 year prior to the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico (1517).  Their empire was never conquered by the Aztec Empire.  In fact, there is no record of the Aztecs ever defeating them in battle, but numerous battles in which the Aztecs were slaughtered by the better armed Purepecha.

Their technological achievements were most likely due to the presence of metal ores within their empire, and their knowledge of metallurgy, which was far superior to that of the Aztecs; such skills have persisted in their descendants and are still widely regarded today, particularly their coppersmithing. Even though they were enemies with the Aztecs, the Aztecs still traded with them, mainly for metal tools and weapons.

Most of the historic core of the town was planned by Italian architects, according to the 1585 Law of the Indies, thus  dates to the late 16th and 17th centuries. The central portion of the city is one of the best-preserved colonial era historic districts in the Americas.  Within this core area are several 16th century churches, monasteries and convents that are of exceptional architectural quality.  They were constructed from stones, originally utilized to build Purepeche temples, palaces and public buildings.  However, there has been very little archaeological work in the central core.  

In 1970, Pátzcuaro had a population of 14,300.   The population in 2020 is approximately 60,000.  Therefore, the photographs that I took in 1970 are extremely valuable for documenting the appearance of the city and surrounding landscape prior to extensive suburban development. 

I am still struggling with the vast amount of visual information that I collected in Mexico. I have not looked at most of the slides since I was a graduate student at Georgia Tech, teaching a course in Pre-Columbian Architecture. During that era we were not able to see the details of any of the slides in the slide viewers. Thus, I very often missed important details.

Therefore, I am creating videos, which will be able to explain the Mexico I saw in 1970 far more comprehensively than possible in a The Americas Revealed article. They will be posted on my People of One Fire Youtube Channel. While revitalizing the 50 year- old slides digitally, I made an astonishing discovery. It is a shame that back in 1970’s. we didn’t have affordable, high resolution digital cameras of today The discovery would have been even more remarkable.

The Hotel Gran’s front facade in 2018
Where I normally dined during the week that I stayed in Patzcuaro.

First morning in Patzcuaro

While in Michoacan, I stayed at the Gran Hotel on the Zocalo (main square.) It had changed little since the mid-1800’s, when it was constructed. Some time in the mid-20th century, water pipes had been run outside the walls in order to serve free-standing lavatories and commodes. I paid the equivalent back then of $4 a night to stay there. For about $3 I could get a gourmet meal in the hotel’s restaurant . . . which also hadn’t changed in a century.

In 1970, very few Gringos and Canadians knew about Patzcuaro. I was the only United States citizen in the hotel. There were also some French students staying there. The rest of the guests were Latin Americans. The situation now in Patzcuaro is quite different. Many North Americans and Europeans have moved there . . . jacking up real estate prices to the point where the Natives can’t afford to live there. It is still, however, an extremely popular tourist destination for middle class Mexican families.

I awoke at sunrise to the sounds of Purapeche vendors setting up their stalls in the ancient market square immediately behind the Gran Hotel and my room. This location has been used as a market since around 1320 AD. It now looks entirely different. Archaeologists excavated many layers of human activity and then the market square was repaved to make it more attractive to tourists.

Sunrise viewed from the balcony of my hotel room
As the sun rose, the market stalls became more visible.
In the corner of one slide I noticed something odd yesterday.
Fifty years ago, while I was admiring the early morning activity in the market, a young Purepeche mother was rummaging through a 55 gallon steel drum, that was used as a garbage can. She was seeking any possible morsel of food that she could give to her daughter in a blue dress, standing behind her. Had I known what was in this slide, I don’t think I could have eaten the breakfast feast that the hotel had prepared for its guests . . . well, at least if I had not walked over to the market to give her some money.

This first video on Patzcuaro is in English, but the Spanish language video on Patzcuaro below it is vastly more professional and contains more accurate information on the city’s history. Also, definitely more cultural details on the second video.


  1. Howdy, Became aware of the Purehepehe when I moved back to West Texas. When do we get to see their huge pyramid????

    On Sun, Aug 16, 2020 at 12:18 PM The Americas Revealed wrote:

    > alekmountain posted: ” by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner > Pátzcuaro, Michoacán – July 28, 1970 One Summer In Mexico – Part 28 It is > an example of the power of 21st century technology, when analyzing historic > buildings & prehistoric cities. ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Richard, Purépecha? from Puru (Para). I had suspected that the first people in Mexico that built Terraces were connected to a vast trading network from Peru/ Colombia to the Great lakes. Bronze items have been found as far North as the Great lakes. Do you have any Native lore on the People that built the Beehive Dome shaped tombs in Ohio? Thanks for the Articles.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Richard, The Western Side of Mexico is where these bronze people Settled. There is a possible connection with Copper /Bronze age and Polynesians peoples in Central America….some seem to have settled in the South East U.S. Quite the multi-ethic peoples in the ancient days. Best of Happy times in Cancun!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Richard Sir, I just received your latest book Native American Encyclopedia of Georgia. It’s going to be an excellent read 287 pages. You are a wealth of knowledge. Thank you very much!

    John Wesley Mobley

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you! Sorry, that it is taking so long for the publisher to send out the books. Lulu sent me a letter stating that state-mandated spacing requirements have resulted in only half of their printing presses being available for printing. In the first chapter, an A was left off the end of Georgia. It is not that way in the final draft. I don’t know what happened. I will catch it in the next edition.


  6. Thank you! Can I quote you on a marketing flyer I am sending out? I found two typos where the last A in Georgia was missing. It’s not on the final draft, so must have been taken off my spell check. The next edition will correct that.


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