I’ve always thought that we’ve perhaps underestimated the Toltecs a bit. We hear a lot about the Aztec but not so much about the Toltec. So who were they?
Before I begin let me say something I have long suspected. I personally think that Toltec influence extended further north than some believe and that that influence was heavier than some believe. The Toltecs, I believe, had an empire that covered the American Southwest and all of Mexico including Central America and perhaps beyond. I’ll explain why in future posts.
The Toltec culture was a Mesoamerican culture that dominated a region centered in Tula in the early post-classic period of Mesoamerican chronology which was from about 800–1000 CE. Tula was the capitol of the Toltec Empire between the fall of Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan. It is a site that has NOT been studied as extensively as other sites in Mesoamerica, sadly. Debate continues even today over its influence, political system, and its relations with other Mesoamerican cities such as Chichen Itza. Tula is located in the Tula Valley in what is today the Mexican State of Hidalgo northwest of Mexico City. An earlier site is also found there that is known as Tula Chico and a ceremonial site known as Tula Grande. The Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl is the chief feature at the site and this pyramid is topped by four, four meter high basalt columns carved in the form of ancient Toltec warriors. The city fell around 1150 AD but it still had an amazing amount of influence in the Aztec Empire which followed the demise of the Toltec Empire.
Quetzalcoatl was the chief deity of the Toltecs. He was known as the feathered serpent god. The name “Tula” comes from the Nahuatl phrase “Toltan Xicocotitlan” which means “near the cattails.” The Aztecs later took the phrase to mean “urban center,” however, and the phrase was used to indicate Aztec urban sites such as Teotihuacan, Cholula, and Tenochtitlan. The inhabitants of Tula were called the Toltec or Tolteca and the Aztecs later modified the name “Toltec” to refer to an “urban person or city-dweller.” The Aztecs also used the name to refer to artisans and skilled workers. The people of the Valley of Mexico had a high regard for the Toltec of Tula even during the time when Cortez and the Spanish arrived.
Tula is in the Tula River Valley and at the south end is the Mesquite Valley that is also known as “Teotlapan” meaning “land of the gods.” Its climate is semi-arid and in terms of elevation the site is about 2000-2200 meters above sea level. That’s about 6500 to 7200 feet. The area has three continuously flowing rivers and streams with the largest being the Tula River and during the rainy season a number of arroyos also flow through the area. Finely sculpted stone works and human remains have been found at the site.
The ceremonial center of ancient Tula is located on an outcropping of limestone with steep banks on three sides, thus, making the center defensible in case of attack. Warrior and sacrificial themes are prominent at the site and there are many images of jaguars and coyotes representing ancient Toltec warriors as well as depictions of eagles eating human hearts. I think it safe to say that Toltec society was a warrior society similar to the Spartans who were a European warrior society. Images of serpents eating skeletons and skulls are also depicted at the site.
Two pyramids dominate the ceremonial center of Tula. The ceremonial center also includes several large buildings, atlas (colossal) carved figures, ballcourts (which have also been found in the American Southwest, namely, in Arizona) and a series of carved columns facing a large plaza. The central plaza is big enough for 100,000 people. From what we can deduce it is believed that most of the Toltec ceremonies were dominated by the warriors.
The earliest date for Tula’s establishment is about 400 BCE. It has been theorized that likely Tula was founded by people from several ethnic groups in the area including the Chichimecas and Nonoalcas. The Chichimecas are believed to have come from the north while the Nonocalcas are believed to have come from the south. Tula rose to prominence after the fall of Teotihuacan and reached its zenith between 900 and 1150. It had a population of around 60,000 with another 25,000 people living in outlying areas around the city. Extended family seemed to have been important to the Toltecs as indicated by both rural and urban housing constructed. The city had defensive fortifications.
The later Aztecs viewed the Toltec as their intellectual and cultural ancestors. The Aztecs said that the Toltec came from Tula (Tollan in the Nahuatl language). Further, Aztec oral tradition gives a list of ancient Toltec rulers and their accomplishments. Amazingly there are similarities between Toltec architecture and iconography at Tula and the Mayan site at Chichen Itza.
The pottery-ware found at Tula is amazing and beautiful. The Toltec produced a variety of expressive orange-ware clay ceramic vessels which are wonderful to see and very detailed. It often depicts the Toltec as having prominent noses and beards or goatees. Some scholars believe that the Toltec conquered Chichen Itza and made it into a Toltec colony. Tula, the Toltec capitol, also had an extensive trade network and the city had a rather large obsidian workshop.
There is an ongoing debate among scholars about the nature of Toltec culture and this debate goes back to the later 19th century. Ah yes, never-ending arguments as usual! Most Native Mesoamerican scholars tend to believe the Aztec oral histories concerning the Toltec which relate that the Toltecs had a pan-Mesoamerican empire based in Tula. However, non-Mesoamerican scholars tend to NOT believe this was so and that the Toltecs didn’t forge an empire but a simple kingdom. Surprised? I’m not as Western scholars, sadly, OFTEN put down and pass off any “fantastical” tales of ANY Native culture in the Americas! Oh yes, we must continue to secure the notion that the apex of human society is and always has been in beloved Europe must we not?
Desire Charnay was the first archaeologist to work at the Tula site and Charnay defended the the native view of the Toltecs based on his impression of the Tula site finds. He was also the first to not similarities between Tula and the Mayan’s Chichen Itza cities. In fact, Charnay theorized that Chichen Itza had been violently conquered by Toltec warriors under the leadership of the infamous Kukulcan!! Of course, Kukulcan is the Mayan name for the Aztec “god” Quetzalcoatl. He may have been an individual or as some have speculated the Kukulcan were a race of people. Whatever the case Kukulcan is depicted as light skinned with a beard.
One thing I want to say before I move on is that archaeologists and anthropologists spend a lot of time arguing. For every theory there is an opposing theory. Perhaps that is why the theories are constantly changing and why so many of them are confusing! Who in the hell can get anything done when everyone is arguing???
Scholars have held that Central Mexico was dominated by the Toltec Empire between the 10th and 12th centuries CE. They have also held the view that the Toltec were a distinct ethnic group. The Aztecs, in their oral traditions, referred to several Toltec city-states referring to them as “Tollan” meaning “Place of Reeds.”
One thing I want you to keep in mind is that the Toltecs were exquisite carved stone artisans.
Some scholars believe the Aztec tales of the Toltec are a mixture of both fact and legend (myth) which I will agree with as that is normally the case when it comes to oral traditions. But, let us remember that behind every myth is some element of FACT!
The Aztecs had a god known as Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent) but the Toltec had a ruler named Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl whose name means “Our Prince One-Reed Feathered Serpent.” He is believed to have ruled the Toltec during the 10th century (900s). He later ended up in exile in what is today El Salvador.
All that I have just presented to you is known as the Historcist Position. This position has fallen out of favor with most archaeologists today in favor of a more critical and “interpretative” approach to the Aztec mythical accounts. Ah yes, the Natives certainly could not have gotten this history correct…..could they? Sorry but I maintain that rather than attempting to defrock Native oral histories and passing them all off as mere myth MAYBE we OUGHT to LISTEN to them a bit more! I do NOT hold to the position that Native people were savage ignorants as some seem to!! Oral traditions are full of symbolism, typically, and IF we interpret that symbolism correctly then we just might learn a few things, one being, that what we thought was “myth” may have been actual historical FACT! I SERIOUSLY think it is high time for scholars to stop putting down Native accounts and start listening instead. Yes, this behavior I see on the part of scholars REALLY PISSES ME OFF!! Ungrateful arrogants!!
Ok, time for a time out LOL. I’ll continue with more on the Toltecs in my upcoming posts….stay tuned.