's Ancient Civilizations of the World/The Toltecs

Brief HistoryEdit

Statues of Toltec warriors

The Toltec civilization emerged in northern Mesoamerica, in the present-day state of Hidalgo, between 800 CE and 1100 CE. They were the forbearers of the Aztecs. The Toltecs were a Pre-Columbian civilization whose culture is suspected to have been an offset from the previous Teotihuacan culture (100 BCE – 8th century CE) that also resided in the Mesoamerican region. When Teotihuacan began to decline around 750 CE, several surrounding centers fought for dominance in the power vacuum it left. The Toltecs had their city at Tula in the north and emerged from the struggles to control large parts of Mesoamerica from the Gulf coast west.

The Toltecs used both trade and conquests to expand their territory. At their height of power and prosperity (c.950 CE), there were an estimated 40,000 Toltecs in Mesoamerica. They had around forty subject regions that paid tribute. Their influence and control of central Mesoamerica extended as far as the Maya in the Yucatan.

The collapse of the Toltec Empire is enigmatic. 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. In any case, by 1100 CE the Toltec Empire disintegrated and Tula was abandoned. Legend tells of weak rulers and factional strife as the cause of collapse.

Geographical ExtentEdit

Geographically, the Toltec Empire was not very large; at its height it encompassed an area of 386 square miles (around 1000 square kilometers). The center of the Toltec Empire was their capital, Tollan, now-a-days Tula, in the state of Hidalgo. Farthest north of Mesoamerican centers, Tula was in the middle of a large rural population.


The term "Toltec" has several meanings. Originating in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, it derived from the name “Tollan,” meaning “place of reeds” or “metropolis,” but it was also used to refer to “skilled artists.”


The Toltec economy depended upon agriculture and trade. Their main crops were maize (corn), beans, and chili peppers. Toltec artisans used obsidian – volcanic glass similar to granite – to create weapons, which they exported to nearby civilizations. Other exports included textiles and ceramics. Their main imports were beans, cacao, and mushrooms.

Social StructureEdit

All information about the Toltec Empire is shrouded with mystery. Little is known about their social structure, apart from the fact that the Toltec society was militaristic, with a warrior aristocracy. In fact, Aztec kings and aristocracy were “proud” of their Toltec blood, and they used their Toltec descent for their claim to power.


Toltec theology and mythology were based on polytheism, centered on the deity Quetzalcoatl, “the feathered-serpent,” which later became the central figure of the Aztec pantheon. Their religious ceremonies included human sacrifices. The Toltecs interacted with most of the societies of Mesoamerica, and it is probable that their religious beliefs were influenced by, and in turn influenced, many other cultures.

Art and ArchitectureEdit

Toltec architecture was heavily influenced by religion and war. Their temples were flat-roofed with square column halls and built using limestone. As expected of a militaristic society, the murals that adorned these temples depicted gruesome battle scenes, “bird warriors,” and representations of the god Tezcatlipoca, who was the patron of warriors that demanded human sacrifice. The best example of Toltec architecture is at the site of Chichen Itza, a blend of the architectural elements of the Toltec and Mayan cultures. Toltec stone sculpture was monumental (meaning massive/enormous), and depicted their religious beliefs and the militaristic society. Their pottery included both ceremonial (i.e. ceremonial vessels) and practical (i.e. cooking pots, tableware, and storage jars) items, and it was one of their most important exports. The accomplishments of their craftsmen and artists had reached legendary status by the time the Spaniards arrived in the early sixteenth century.


The Toltecs used several agricultural techniques including irrigation and hill terracing to grow their crops, which were adapted by the Aztecs. The Toltec god, Quetzalcoatl, was adopted by the Mayas and the Aztecs. The Aztecs credited the Toltecs as their “teachers” for herbal medicine. Culturally, they are said to have discovered pulque or octli, a traditional Mexican drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant.


"The Toltecs" (Saylor)