"Tzintzuntzan" means "Place of Hummingbirds" in the ancient Purépecha language. From at least 1100 until the arrival of the Spanish in 1522, Tzintzuntzan was the center of a city that once held some 40,000 royals, nobles, priests and bureaucrats who administered a widespread empire of 1.5 million people. The Purépecha were the only group in the region to successfully resist the warlike Aztec nation (which attempted at least three major invasions of the Purépecha empire).
The most prominent ruins at Tzintzuntzan today are five massive "yácatas" that stand in a line on a great stone platform roughly 1450 feet long by 850 feet wide. Each yácata slopes upward, in a pyramid-like fashion, but in a decided departure from other Mesoamerican pyramids, the yácatas all feature a semi-circular front. It is presumed that each yácata once held a temple at the top.
Little is known about the origins of the Purépecha. Their language is not related to others in the area and some theories suggest connections to the Zuni in the north or the Quechua of Perú to the south. Purépecha metallurgy was the most advanced in Mexico and their bronze weapons gave them a definite edge on the battlefield against the Aztecs. They also used gold, silver and copper to fashion axes, bells, needles and ornaments of unique design. The Purépecha also held different religious beliefs and ignored the rain Tláloc and other deities worshiped by most other Mesoamerican cultures.
Although the Purépecha managed to resist the Aztecs, they soon fell before the Spanish, not so much from force of arms as from their lack of any natural immunity to the smallpox and measles brought by the Europeans. Even before the Spanish arrived in Tzintzuntzan, the Purépecha learned from Aztec messengers of the fall of the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (which once stood on the site that is now Mexico City). These same messengers, already infected by exposure to the Spanish, brought more than just the latest news. They also unwittingly brought smallpox to Tzintzuntzan and many Purépecha, including the king, died. By the time the Spaniard, Cristobal de Olid, arrived in 1522, he found an empire demoralized by fear and disease and unable to resist. The new Purépecha king, Tangoxoan, was allowed by the Spanish to retain his title, but little else.
The Spanish referred to the Purépecha as "Tarasca" and today the term is seen throughout the Mexican state of Michoacán, most of which was once controlled by the Purépecha empire.