Café con Nawatl: The Metate

Kurly Tlapoyawa
3 min readJan 3, 2021

What’s up, everybody? It’s your boy Kurly Tlapoyawa, the hardcore archaeologist, and I’m writing this from deep inside occupied Pueblo territory in the beautiful state of New Mexico, sitting in the shadow of Oku Pin (Also known as the Sandia Mountains). This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. And that is a series of short segments on the Nawatl (or Nahuatl) language that I call Café con Nawatl.

Now, I should make it clear that this isn’t a language class. What I want to do is touch upon some elements of the Nawatl language that I find interesting, and that might help you understand and appreciate the language a little bit more. Especially if you’re a Mexican Spanish speaker, and especially if you happen to be an archaeologist (though being an archaeologist is hardly necessary).

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of ground stone analysis. Ground stone is exactly what it sounds like: it’s a piece of stone that has been ground (surprise!). It’s been worked to accomplish various things, usually grinding food. So it’s used for food preparation. And the most common type of ground stone is the metate, and what people call the mano (the hand stone). Now, there are different types of metates. There is the slab metate, which is also known as a flat metate. There is the basin metate, which is like a bowl that’s been ground intensively using a small round mano. And then there’s what’s called a trough metate. It’s a trough that has been used with a long, flat, two-handed mano. The mano creates ridges along the sides of the metate because the mano is shorter than the width of the metate.

Examples of manos and metates

I bring all of this up because the word metate comes from the Nawatl word “metlatl.” It’s just pronounced a little bit differently. The Spaniards couldn’t pronounce Nawatl words that well, so we wound up with metate, instead of metlatl. But what I find cool is that the mano, which is the hand stone that’s used to do the actual grinding, is known in Nawatl as the “metlapilli”, which means the “child of the metate”.

I think this is pretty awesome because it speaks a lot to the philosophy of the Nawa people and their cosmovision and worldview. Now, why is the mano considered the “child of the metate?” It’s because the metlapilli, or the child of the metate, will only fit properly with the metate that it was originally used with. They were created at the same time — one is used to fashion the other. So when we find a metate out in the field, we know that if we find a mano that matches perfectly with that metate, they were created together. The parent, and its child.

Also, if you happen to find artifacts while you are out hiking or enjoying the wilderness, please do not remove them! You can admire the artifacts and take photos, but please leave things where you found them. It is our collective responsibility to protect the cultural inheritance of this land.

Kurly Tlapoyawa

(Chicano/Nawa/Mazewalli) Archaeologist, filmmaker, and founder of the Chimalli institute of Mesoamerican Arts. Professor of C/S at Colegio Chicano del Pueblo.