Among the groups that constituted the pre-Hispanic culture of the Mexican highlands, the Tarascans were unique in their skill in metallurgy, as well as in the use of rounded monumental structures ( yácatas, or pyramids, which are common in western Mexico) on rectangular platforms in ceremonial centers. Equally distinctive is the evidence of complex social differentiation without corresponding social distinctions based on access to, and use of, alienable lands. It is probable that the Tarascan system of tribute depended on the labor of commoners on public lands. Similarly, bondage involved the exclusive obligation to perform specific services for an individual. This practice probably formed the basis of a complex system of labor appropriation in which forms of mutual servitude may have existed, thus distinguishing the Tarascan system from both the Aztec mayeque system of slavery and from European systems of slavery and serfdom. Both the division between noble and priestly groups and the more flexible forms of Tarascan political succession—based on personal leadership qualities and organized by a form of ambilateral kin reckoning still imperfectly understood by scholars—were typical of Aztec and other Middle American groups of highland Mexico.
At the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, the Tarascan state was controlled from three main centers: Tzintzuntzan (the seat of the supreme leader, or caltzontzin ), Ihuatzio, and Pátzcuaro. Between the first major intervention in the area by the Spanish in 1522 and the arrival of Bishop Vasco de Quiroga in 1538, the Tarascan state, as well as Tarascan society and culture, suffered severely both from Spanish conscription for the Conquest of western Mexico and from forced labor. Even before the Spanish forces arrived, smallpox and measles introduced by the Europeans radically reduced the Tarascan population, with tragic consequences for the prevailing social order.
Vasco de Quiroga, supported by a group of European humanist friars, instituted a major program of social reform in the Tarascan homeland between the years of 1538 and 1565. The widely settled Tarascans were congregated in towns organized around religious-communal institutions. Local specialization in crafts was established in different towns, as were markets and a series of norms concerning dress, communal work and property, and even nuptiality.
A problem for Tarascan cultural history is raised both by the brutal disruption of Tarascan culture and society through epidemics and violent oppression during the first two decades of Spanish occupation and by the successful social reforms of noted priest-humanists like Vasco de Quiroga, Juan de San Miguel, and Jacobo Daciano in the following decades. Some scholars have argued that although the Tarascans have maintained their language, as well as such objective cultural elements as the Middle American nutritional and culinary system based on beans, squashes, chilies, and maize, they have adopted the basic complex of Spanish peasant culture in regard to religion, economy, and traditional forms of empirical or "folk" knowledge. In contrast to this "Hispanist" point of view, some Mexicanists argue that the Tarascans continue to represent major continuities in Middle American culture, especially in the relation between language and culture and in such diverse domains as gender relations, socialization, cosmology, and ethnoscience.
Given their importance as a pre-Hispanic state, present knowledge of the Tarascan situation during the Mexican colonial period is amazingly limited. Only at the end of the nineteenth century did systematic study of Tarascan ethnohistory and linguistics begin. In that period, the Tarascan homeland was being significantly altered. In the Sierra Phurhépecha, forest was cut by foreign companies to provide the railroad ties needed for the modernization program initiated during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Similarly, in the Zacapu Valley region, the draining of the shallow Zacapu and its replacement by a major maize plantation altered radically the traditional lifeways of the Tarascan population in that area. Both environmental alterations were associated with a significant immigration of the Hispano-Mexican population. In the twentieth century, revolution, agrarian reform, and resistance to state policies of social reform wrought major changes in the demography, economy, and local political and moral order of the Tarascan homeland.