Much of what is known about the Tarascan state has been gleaned from the ethnohistoric records (documents written by Spanish civil and religious authorities, along with some documents authored by members of the indigenous population, all produced after the Spanish conquest). The most important of these sources is the Relación de Michoacán, an impressive document that describes the indigenous government, cultural practices, religious beliefs and institutions, and the history of the royal dynasty. Other documents through which the prehispanic Tarascan State is described include land claims and petitions, records of official visits and inspections, and questionnaires. In sum these documents generally reveal that the Tarascan political machine was highly organized and tightly controlled by the king. The bureaucracy was extensive, and subordinate lords and officials were extremely loyal to the king, even in the face of the Spanish invasion and the uneasy coexistence that existed between the last Tarascan king and the Spanish civil authorities. This is in marked contrast to the better known Aztec empire, in which the control exerted over subjugated lords and their territories was intermittent and relied upon overwhelming demonstrations of force on the occasion of rebellions.
The legendary history of the royal dynasty contained within the Relación de Michoacán records that the ancestors of the king migrated to the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin only a few centuries before the Spanish conquest. Only a few generations prior to the Spanish conquest, the ancestors of the king came to politically dominate the Pátzcuaro Basin and subjugate the many independent chiefdoms or small hierarchical societies that existed at the time. Rather quickly, the armies of the Pátzcuaro Basin, led by the ancestors of the king, conquered much of what is now Michoacán. Over the next two or three generations, subsequent kings extended the boundaries of the state to the south, west, north, and east, where it abutted polities conquered by the Aztec empire.
Archaeologically, what is known of the prehistory of Michoacán parallels the legendary history of the royal dynasty recorded in the Relación de Michoacán, at least in general terms. Research by INAH archaeologists at the capitals of Tzintzuntzan (see picture) and Ihuatzio have documented a short period of monumental construction that produced the large pyramidal structures befitting of an imperial capital and reflecting the states ability to control labor. Furthermore, no state level society existed in Michoacán prior to the rise of the Tarascan state. Small societies with emerging elites that marked their status by acquiring and displaying valuable goods and symbols from elsewhere in Mesoamerica have been recorded as early as the Late Preclassic period (roughly 100 BC to 250 AD). By the EpiClassic to Early Postclassic (roughly 800 AD to 1100 AD), these elites were in active competition and perhaps engaged in armed conflict frequently. Only with the emergence of a centralized political authority in the Pátzcuaro Basin and then the dominance of the region by the Pátzcuaro Basin core was the political landscape fundamentally transformed. Once areas had been conquered and politically subjugated, a fairly standardized (and unique) array of material objects was adopted by provincial elites, reflecting the fact that the king and his political machine defined markers of nobility within the boundaries of his state.
In sum, the Tarascan state offers the rare opportunity to study the processes that led to the development of a state level society for the first time in a region, with the benefit of a documentary record, even if that record presents some interpretive difficulties and was not produced contemporaneously with that development. Interpreting that ethnohistoric record, determining what exactly it reflects (with all of its biases and cultural particularities), and how it and archaeological evidence can be integrated in innovative and fruitful ways, has been the central focus of my research into the Tarascan state.