Introduction to Latin American Studies/American Origins/Toltecs

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Preparing to Read[edit | edit source]

The Atlantes – columns in the form of Toltec warriors in Tula

Questions to Explore

  • How did the Toltecs influence later Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztec?
  • Why do we know so little about the Toltec civilization?

Key Terms

  • Toltec
  • Quetzalcoatl
  • Tezcatlipoca

Key People

  • Chalchiuh Tlatonac
  • Mixcoatl Totepeuh
  • Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl
  • Huemac

Key Places

  • Tula (Tolán)

Vocabulary Building

  • ?

Reading[edit | edit source]

The Toltecs (or Toltec or Tolteca) were a PreColumbian Native American people who dominated much of central Mexico between the 10th and 12th century AD. Their language, Nahuatl, was also spoken by the Aztecs.


The Toltecs originated as a militaristic nomadic people, and they or their ancestors may have sacked the city of Teotihuacan (ca. 750). After they established a more settled existence, the Toltec fused the many small states in Central Mexico into an empire ruled from their capital, Tula (also known as Tolán). They were accomplished temple builders. Their influence spread through much of Mesoamerica in the post-Classic era. The Toltec influence on the Maya of Yucatán is heavy, especially evident at the city of Chichen Itza. Their pottery has been found as far south as Costa Rica.

Religous Beliefs

Some writers have alleged that the Toltecs introduced the cult of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. This is certainly not so, as this deity was commonly depicted throughout Mesoamerica for centuries earlier, going back to Olmec times. In Toltec (and later Aztec) mythology Quetzalcoatl was a rival of Tezcatlipoca, the first god who is known to have demanded human hearts as sacrifice. Thus the Toltecs seem to have introduced the habit of mass human sacrifice as later practiced by the Aztecs.

Legend and Archiology

The Toltec empire is believed to have been destroyed around 1200 CE by the nomadic warriors of the Chichimecs. The ruling family of the Aztecs claimed to descend from Toltec ancestry via the sacred city of Colhuacán.

In his writings Miguel León Portilla explains that in Nauha legend, the Toltec were the originators of all civilization, so Toltec was synonymous with artist, or artisan, and their city "Tollan" was described as full of wonders. When the Aztecs rewrote their history, they tried to show they were related to the Toltecs. Unfortunately this means that much of the tradition of the Toltecs is legend, and difficult to prove. Stories say that after the fall of Tula some of the Toltec retreated to Cholula, which did not fall until centuries later when it was burned by Hern�n Cort�s and the Spanish conquistadores.

We know very little of the Toltec rulers. They were believed to by god-like, and depending on which account of Toltec history you read, they are portrayed as more god-like or more human. In keeping with this theme, many took the names of their patron dieties and the stories of their lives mirror the lives of their namesakes. Some of the Toltec rulers are said to have included:

  • Chalchiuh Tlatonac – first Toltec king, founder of Tula
  • Mixcoatl or Mixcoatl Totepeuh
  • Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, son of Mixcoatl, the most famous Toltec ruler
  • Huemac – the last Toltec king, died in exile c. 1100 (?), some 6 years after the fall of Tula


In 1941, the Sociedad Mexicana de Antropolog�a confirmed that Tula was the capital of the Toltec, as had long been tradition and suggested by archeologists since the 19th century. Some scholars, including [[Laurette S�journ�]], regret the decision, claiming that several seasons of excavation only revealed a minor city, not enough to justify the legend of the Toltecs. The site of Tula actually shows it to have been a large city in its prime, although the ceremonial art and architecture visible there today is less impressive than that at other Mesoamerican sites. It should be understood, however, that some chronicles from the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and later confuse the Toltec with other earlier Mesoamerican civilizations and sometimes tend to attribute all achievements of the centuries before the rise of the Aztec to the Toltec.

Toltec Influence on Modern Culture

During the late twentieth century, some Mexican shamans, including Don Miguel Ruiz, who claim to be descendants of the Toltec and inheritors of their spiritual powers, began writing and teaching for a worldwide audience, causing a renewed interest in the Toltec. Another such author is Victor Sanchez who was inspired by the writings of Carlos Castaneda.

Responding[edit | edit source]

Refer back to the questions from Preparing to Explore. After reading about the Toltecs, how would you answer differently?

Resources, Links, and Virtual Field Trips[edit | edit source]

Websites[edit | edit source]

Annotated Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Builders of the Ancient World,

Library of Congress Record,1&SEQ=20051116172636&Search%5FArg=builders%20of%20the%20ancient%20world&Search%5FCode=TALL&CNT=25&PID=10308&SID=1