The Toltec civilization existed in central Mexico for a relatively short time period before the Aztec civilization, from approximately 900 to 1200 AD. There is not a lot of available history of the Toltecs due to a lack of written documentation and archeological findings, but it seems that this people had ancient associations with the Mixtec and Zapotec. Their story begins around 700 AD when the Toltec capital city, Tollán (Tula) was still unoccupied. The nearby site of Chingu was a Teotihuacán regional center until 750 AD when it was abandoned and Tollán was occupied. It is at this point that the history becomes confusing. The three schools of thought on the Toltec development have them either conquering Teotihuacán and then fusing many small states into an empire, migrating refugees from the fallen Teotihuacán culture or a gradually rising power that simply faded into existence while the Teotihuacán power was fading out.
Like the later Aztecs, the Toltecs spoke Nahuatl. In that language, the name Toltec means "master builders" (literally the "reed people"), which they were, as well as artists and traders. It is true that the Toltec formed a warrior aristocracy and were militaristic, but it is not know just how violent they really were. They held craftsmanship and knowledge in high esteem, so much so that the Aztecs called the arts and sciences Toltecayotl, or Toltequity. They had considerable astronomical knowledge, including a calendar cycle of fifty-two years of 260 days each. In architecture and the arts the Toltec were influenced by the Teotihuacán and the Olmec cultures, and it includes walls carved with snakes, jaguars and skulls, as well as the huge Atlantean statues. They smelted metals and had highly developed stonework.
As Tollán (which had a population of between 32,000 and 60,000 at its peak) grew through immigration, so did trade. Besides local trade, the Toltecs also traded with the Lowland Maya, Oaxaca, Tlaxcala, Cholula, and the people of the Gulf Coast. It was the job of a special merchant, equivalent to the Aztec pochteca, to trade with non-Toltec peoples. In this way, they had access to pottery from Guatemala, northern Mexico, and northern Central America, shells and copper from the Pacific coast and feathers, animal skins, rubber, cacao beans, and cotton from the Gulf coast. The presence of macaw feathers and copper bells in the American southwest suggest that the Toltec traders also reached that area.
The city itself was filled with temples, halls, a palace, ball-courts and it also had a tzompantli, or skull rack. Residential areas were made up of groupings of three or four dwellings surrounding an open courtyard, where each grouping may have housed an extended family. Most of those people who lived within the city were involved in a craft of some kind such as the manufacture of obsidian objects, spear points, ceramics, wooden objects, fabrics or jewelry. These items, as well as food, were traded in local or regional markets. In the rural areas, farmers produced were maize, beans, squash, chili peppers, amaranth, and prickly pear. They also ate dog, rodents, turkey, deer and birds. From the maguey cactus, an intoxicating fermented beverage called pulque was brewed.
The Toltec religion was polytheistic but, in the later years of the civilization, focused mainly on Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent” who could also appear as the morning star. Their religious ceremonies included human sacrifice, sun worship and the sacred ball game, tlatchli. There did exist an opposing deity, Tezcatlipoca, who was the god of war, night and darkness, and drove Quetzalcoatl out of Tollán, ensuring that one day, the light-skinned feathered serpent might return. The Toltec also worshipped Tlaloc, the god of rain and vegetation, Centotl, the god of corn, Itzpapaloti, the god of butterflies and obsidian and Tonatiuh, the sun god.
Around 1000 AD a period of southward expansion began, and the Toltecs conquered the Mayan center of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. This resulted in the domination of the Maya from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. Legend says that the conquerors were followers of Quetzalcoatl who were driven out of the city by Tezatlipoca’s followers. Though some suggest that aspects of the Toltec culture continued at Chichen Itza, it is widely recognized that Chichen Itza was later lost by the Toltec in a civil war. After gaining various other territories, the end of Tollán and the Toltec empire came about in the thirteenth century, opening the way for the rise of the Aztecs. While it’s commonly held that the end of the reign of the Toltec culture was brought about by the Chichimec, a nomadic people, it isn’t clear how. There is also evidence to suggest that Tollán was abandoned because of civil wars, agricultural problems, trade problems and/or immigration from the north. Either way, the remaining Toltec were assimilated into the Mayan civilization (their previous subordinates) and the Aztecs looted and destroyed Tollán.
It is interesting to see that Mesoamerican pottery, carvings and other depictions show the ancient Toltecs as a Caucasian people. Today in Mexico, it can be maintained that the descendants of the Toltecs exist in more than fifty ethnic groups, including the Wirrarika, Yaquis, Nahuas, Otomies, Mazatecos and Zapatecos.
Some noteworthy names in Toltec history:
- Mixcoatl, whose name means ‘Cloud Serpent’ was the Toltec ruler who, according to legend, conquered Teotihuacán around 900 A.D.
- Topiltzin, the son of Mixcoatl, was a 10th century Toltec ruler who introduced the cult of Quetzalcoatl.
- Ce Acatl Topilzin was a Toltec priest who reigned in a time of peace and abundance, and was one of the many rulers who was thought to be one with Quetzalcoatl. He claimed that after his death he would return.
- Topiltzin was the ninth of the Toltec rulers to bear the title of Quetzalcoatl. After marrying outside the nobility, he was driven from Tollán in a civil war.
Note: The so-called Toltec Mounds were not built by the Toltecs. They were built in the southern Mississippi River Valley area in Arkansas by the Mississippian Indians sometime during the Middle Ages.