The Toltec Civilization, one of the forerunners of the Aztecs can trace its origin to present day state of Hidalgo between 800 to 1100 BCE. The Toltecs are believed to be pre-Columbian civilization, an offset from Teotihuacan civilization another resident civilization of the Mesoamerican region.
The Toltec Empire was not a massive one; at its peak it was spread over an area of around 1,000 square kilometers. They used both trade and conquest to expand its territory. The center of the empire was the capital city of Tollan. The Aztec culture considered Toltecs as their intellectual and cultural base. Aztec’s oral and pictographic tradition also mentions the history of the Toltec Empire.
Roots of the Toltec Empire
The Toltecs are believed to have originated from the Tolteca-Chichimeca people who had migrated from the deserts of the northwest to the Mexico Valley. The first settlement of the Toltecs was at Colhuacan but later established the capital at Tollan. The city expanded to an area of 14 sq. km with a population of around 30,000 to 40,000 where the center of the city was laid out in a grid pattern.
The first Toltec leaders were Ce Tecpatl Mixcoatl and his son Ce Acatl Topiltzn that became a great ruler and went on to acquire the name of the great god, the Feathered Serpent amongst his many titles.
The seat of Toltec Civilization
The city of Tollan finds its mention in the mythology of Aztec and was well known for its splendid palaces and buildings supposedly made from gold, jade, turquoise etc. The city was also known to be rich while its skilled craftsmen and potters earned a lot of wealth for it. The people of Toltecs in general are also well known as skilled agriculturists that produced a large amount of maize and naturally coloured cottons.
There is not much splendidness left in the archeological site of Tollan. However, there are a lot of monuments still surviving. Some of these include two large pyramids, a large palace building, two ball-courts and a colonnaded walkway surrounded by dense residential area. A group of around 5 houses with flat roof arranged around a courtyard constitutes one unit of domestic housing surrounded by a wall with a single altar in it. The city of Tollan has evidence of the first example of the reclining stone warriors.
Economy and Social Structure
Trade and agriculture were the top contributors in the Toltec economy. They used several agriculture techniques including irrigation and terrace farming and were famous for herbal medicines. The artisans used obsidian (volcanic glass) which was mainly mined from Pochuca to create weapons which was the main item of export apart from textiles and ceramics.
Not much is known about the social structure of the Toltecs. It is believed that it had a very strong military base with a warrior aristocracy. Religion was central to the society with multiple gods. Religious ceremonies included human sacrifice. The Toltecs interacted with societies of the Mesoamerican that in turn influenced each other’s culture.
Art and Architecture
The architecture of both domestic as well as religious structure had flat roof. Much of the art work and mural on temples were influenced from the military based society. These murals depicted war scenes, bird warriors and the patron of warriors that demanded human sacrifice. Toltec architecture was a blend of Toltec and Mayan cultures. One of the best examples of Toltec architecture is the site at Chichen Itza. Toltec stone sculpture was enormous and mostly depicted their religious beliefs and the society. Friezes run around the pyramid that showed scenes of animals and sacrifices. Their pottery included both ceremonial as well as practical items such as the cooking pots, tableware, storage jars etc.
The exact reason for the decline of the Toltec is not known but they ruled a substantial portion of the Basin of Mexico until the mid of 1100 BCE when they abandoned their capital city. The empire is believed to have slowly disintegrated through a combination of natural phenomena such as drought, famine and internal dispute. However, in the city of Tollan, there were signs of violent destruction and the site was looted by the Aztecs. According to legends, the city of Tollan was abandoned because of a civil war; however, other possibilities include agricultural and commercial problems, and overcrowding due to continued immigration. Many architectural columns and statues were burnt and buried. The surviving Toltecs under the leadership of Huemac settled at Cahpultepec on the banks of the Lake Texcoco.
- Edited by Marsha E. Ackermann, Michael J. Schroeder, Janice J. Terry, Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur, Mark F. Whitters, Encyclopedia of World History, Facts on File Inc., 2008
- Gregory S. Aldrete, History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective, The Great Courses, 2011
- Susan Toby Evans and Joanne Pillsbury, Palaces of the Ancient New World, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection Washington, D.C, 2004