10 Facts About the Ancient Toltecs

Mesoamerica's Dominant Civilization from 900-1100 AD

Toltec Temple Ruins in Tula, Mexico

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The Ancient Toltec civilization dominated present-day central Mexico from their capital city of Tollan (Tula). Their civilization peaked from around 900-1150 A.D, at which point it fell when Tula was attacked, sacked and destroyed. The Toltecs were great sculptors and artists who left many impressive sculptures and stone carvings behind. They were also ferocious warriors dedicated to conquest and the spread of the Cult of Quetzalcoatl, greatest of their gods. Here are some quick facts about this mysterious lost civilization!

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They Were Great Warriors

The Toltecs were religious warriors who spread the cult of their God, Quetzalcoatl, to all corners of their Empire. Toltec warriors wore headdresses, chest plates, and padded armor and a small shield on one arm. They carried short swords, atlatls (a weapon designed to throw darts at high velocity) and a heavy curved bladed weapon of sorts which was a sort of cross between a club and an axe. They were organized into warrior orders representing animals such as jaguars and gods like Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca.

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They Were Great Artists and Sculptors

Unfortunately for posterity, the archaeological site of Tula has been looted repeatedly. Even before the arrival of the Spanish to the region, the site was stripped of sculptures and relics by the Aztecs, who greatly revered the Toltecs. Later, starting in the colonial era, looters managed to pick the site nearly clean. Nevertheless, serious archaeological digs have recently uncovered several important statues, relics, and stelae. Among the more important are the Atlante statues which depict Toltec warriors and the columns which show Toltec rulers dressed for war.

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They Practiced Human Sacrifice

There is much evidence that the Toltecs were dedicated practitioners of human sacrifice to appease their gods. Several Chac Mool statues have been found at Tula: these figures of reclining humans with a bowl on their bellies were used for offerings to the gods, including human sacrifice. In the ceremonial plaza, there is a tzompantli, or skull rack, where the heads of sacrificial victims were placed. In the historical record, the story is told of how Ce Atl Quetzalcoatl, the founder of Tula, got into a disagreement with the followers of the god Tezcatlipoca regarding how much human sacrifice was necessary to appease the gods. Ce Atl Quetzalcoatl felt that there should not be so much bloodshed, but he was driven out by his more bloodthirsty opponents.

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They Had a Connection to Chichen Itza

Although the Toltec City of Tula is located to the north of present-day Mexico City and the post-Maya city of Chichen Itza is in the Yucatan, there was an undeniable connection between the two cities. They share certain architectural and thematic similarities which extend far beyond their mutual worship of Quetzalcoatl (or Kukulcan to the Maya). Archaeologists originally surmised that the Toltecs had conquered Chichen Itza, but it is now thought more likely that some exiled Toltec nobles settled there, bringing their ideas with them.

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They Had a Trade Network

Although the Toltecs were not on the same scale as the Ancient Maya when it comes to trade, they nevertheless did trade with their neighbors near and distant. A warrior culture, much of their incoming wealth may have been more from tribute than from trade. Seashells from both Atlantic and Pacific species were found at Tula, as well as pottery types from as far away as Nicaragua. Some pottery fragments from contemporary Gulf Coast cultures has also been identified. The Toltecs produced objects made from obsidian as well as pottery and textiles, which Toltec merchants might have used as trade goods.

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They Founded the Cult of Quetzalcoatl

Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, is one of the greatest gods of the Mesoamerican pantheon. The Toltecs did not create Quetzalcoatl or his worship: images of Feathered Serpents go back as far as the Ancient Olmec, and the famous Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan predates the Toltec civilization, but it was the Toltecs whose reverence for this god caused them to spread his worship far and wide. Adoration of Quetzalcoatl spread from Tula to as far away as the Maya lands of the Yucatan, where he was known as Kukulcan. Later, the Aztecs, who considered the Toltecs as the founders of their dynasty, included Quetzalcoatl in their pantheon of gods.

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Their Decline Is a Mystery

Sometime around 1150 A.D., Tula was attacked, sacked and burned to the ground. The "Burned Palace," once an important ceremonial center, was named for the charred bits of wood and masonry discovered there. Little is known about who burned Tula and why. The Toltecs were aggressive and violent, and reprisals from vassal states or neighboring Chichimeca tribes is the most likely possibility, but historians do not rule out civil wars or internal strife.

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The Aztec Empire Revered Them

Long after the fall of the Toltec civilization, the Aztecs came to dominate Central Mexico from their base of power in the Lake Texcoco region. The Aztecs, or Mexica, culture revered the lost Toltecs. Aztec rulers claimed to be descended from the royal Toltec lines and many aspects of Toltec culture, such as the worship of Quetzalcoatl and human sacrifice, were adopted by the Aztecs. Aztec rulers also frequently sent out teams of workers to the ruined Toltec city of Tula to strip it of original works of art and sculpture. An Aztec-era structure was even found there on the ruins of the Burned Palace.

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Archaeologists Are Still Finding Hidden Treasures

Although the Toltec city of Tula was extensively looted, first by the Aztecs and later by the Spanish, there are still buried treasures being found. In 1993, an offering was found in the Burned Palace under a turquoise disc: this contained the famous "Cuirass of Tula," a decorative chest armor made of seashells. In 2005, some previously-unknown friezes belonging to Hall 3 of the Burned Palace were excavated. Who knows what they'll find next?

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They Had Nothing to Do With the Modern Toltec Movement

A modern movement led by writer Miguel Ruiz is called "Toltec Spirit." In his famous book The Four Agreements, Ruiz outlines a plan for creating happiness in your life. In short, Ruiz' philosophy states that you should be diligent and principled in your personal life and try not to worry about things you cannot change. Other than the name "Toltec," this modern philosophy has nothing to do with the ancient Toltec civilization and the two should not be confused.