10 Facts About the Ancient Toltecs

The Religious Warriors Who Dominated Mesoamerica From 900—1150 A.D.

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). The civilization flourished from around 900-1150 A.D. when Tula was destroyed. The Toltecs were legendary sculptors and artists who left many impressive monuments 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.

01
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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. The warriors were organized into orders representing animals such as jaguars and gods including Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. Toltec warriors wore headdresses, chest plates, and padded armor and carried a small shield on one arm. They were armed with short swords, atlatls (a weapon designed to throw darts at high velocity), and a heavy curved bladed weapon that was a cross between a club and an ax.

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They Were Accomplished Artists and Sculptors

Unfortunately, the archaeological site of Tula has been looted repeatedly. Even prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the site had been stripped of sculptures and relics by the Aztecs, who greatly revered the Toltecs. Later, beginning 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 most significant are the Atlante statues that depict Toltec warriors and the columns that show Toltec rulers dressed for war.

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They Practiced Human Sacrifice

There is a great deal of evidence that the Toltecs regularly practiced human sacrifice (including children) to appease their gods. Several Chac Mool statues—figures of reclining humans holding a bowl on their bellies that were used for offerings to the gods, including human sacrifice—were found at Tula. In the ceremonial plaza, there is a tzompantli, or skull rack, where the heads of sacrificial victims were placed. In the historical record of the period, a story is told that 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 was said to have believed there should be less carnage, however, 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 located in the Yucatan, there's an undeniable connection between the two metropolises. Both share certain architectural and thematic similarities that extend far beyond their mutual worship of Quetzalcoatl (or Kukulcan to the Maya). Archaeologists originally surmised that the Toltecs conquered Chichen Itza, but it's now generally accepted that exiled Toltec nobles likely settled there, bringing their culture with them.

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They Had a Trade Network

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

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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, however, it was the Toltecs whose reverence for the god accounted for the proliferation his worship far and wide. Adoration of Quetzalcoatl spread from Tula to as far as the Maya lands of the Yucatan. Later, the Aztecs, who considered the Toltecs the founders of their own dynasty, included Quetzalcoatl in their pantheon of gods.

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Their Decline Is a Mystery

Sometime around 1150 A.D., Tula was sacked and burned to the ground. The "Burned Palace," once an important ceremonial center, was so named for the charred bits of wood and masonry discovered there. Little is known about who burned Tula or why. The Toltecs were aggressive and violent, and reprisals from vassal states or neighboring Chichimeca tribes is a likely possibility, however, 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 they adopted many aspects of Toltec culture, including the worship of Quetzalcoatl and human sacrifice. Aztec rulers frequently sent out teams of workers to the ruined Toltec city of Tula to retrieve original works of art and sculpture, which likely accounts for an Aztec-era structure that was found at the ruins of the Burned Palace.

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Archaeologists May Still Turn Up Hidden Treasures

Although the Toltec city of Tula has been extensively looted, first by the Aztecs and later by the Spanish, there may yet be buried treasures there. In 1993, a decorative chest containing the famous "Cuirass of Tula," armor made of seashells, was unearthed beneath a turquoise disc in the Burned Palace. In 2005, some previously-unknown friezes belonging to Hall 3 of the Burned Palace were also excavated.

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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. 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-day philosophy has absolutely nothing to do with the ancient Toltec civilization.