The Ancient Toltec Trade and Economy

The Merchants of a Great Mesoamerican Nation

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Tula.

The Toltec Civilization dominated central Mexico from about 900 - 1150 A.D. from their home city of Tollan (Tula). The Toltecs were mighty warriors who spread the cult of their greatest god, Quetzalcoatl, to the far corners of Mesoamerica. Evidence at Tula suggests that the Toltecs had a trade network and received goods from as far away as the Pacific coast and Central America, either through trade or tribute.

The Toltecs and the Postclassic Period

The Toltecs were not the first Mesoamerican civilization to have a trade network. The Maya were dedicated merchants whose trade routes reached far from their Yucatan homeland, and even the ancient Olmec - the mother culture of all of Mesoamerica - traded with their neighbors. The mighty Teotihuacan culture, which was pre-eminent in central Mexico from about 200-750 A.D., had an extensive trade network. By the time the Toltec culture reached prominence, military conquest and subjugation of vassal states were on the rise at the expense of trade, but even wars and conquest stimulated cultural exchanges.

Tula as a Center of Trade

It is difficult to make observations about the ancient Toltec city of Tollan (Tula) because the city was extensively looted, first by the Mexica (Aztecs) before the arrival of the Europeans, and then by the Spanish. Proof of extensive trade networks may have therefore been carried off long ago.

For example, although ​jade was one of the most important trade materials in ancient Mesoamerica, only one jade piece has been found at Tula. Nevertheless, archaeologist Richard Diehl has identified pottery from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Campeche and Guatemala at Tula, and found potsherds traced to the Veracruz region.

Shells from the Atlantic and Pacific have also been excavated at Tula. Surprisingly, the Fine Orange pottery associated with the contemporary Totonac culture has not been found at Tula.

Quetzalcoatl, God of Merchants

As the major deity of the Toltecs, Quetzalcoatl wore many hats. In his aspect of Quetzalcoatl - Ehécatl, he was the god of wind, and as Quetzalcoatl - Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli he was the bellicose God of the Morning Star. The Aztecs venerated Quetzalcoatl as (among other things) the god of merchants: the post-conquest Ramirez Codex mentions a feast dedicated to the god by traders. The principal Aztec god of trade, Yacatechutli, has been traced to earlier roots as a manifestation of either Tezcatlipoca or Quetzalcoatl, both of whom were worshiped at Tula. Given the Toltecs' fanatical devotion to Quetzalcoatl and that god's later association with the merchant class by the Aztecs (who themselves regarded the Toltecs as the apogee of civilization), it is not unreasonable to surmise that trade played an important role in Toltec society.

Trade and Tribute

The historical record seems to suggest that Tula did not produce much in the way of trade goods. A great deal of utilitarian Mazapan-style pottery has been found there, suggesting that Tula was, or was not far from, a place that produced it.

They also produced stoneware bowls, cotton textiles, and items fashioned from obsidian, such as blades. Bernardino de Sahagún, a colonial era chronicler, claimed that the people of Tollan were skilled metalworkers, but no metal not of later Aztec origin has been found at Tula. It is possible that the Toltecs dealt in more perishable items like food, cloth or woven reeds which would have deteriorated with time. The Toltec did have significant agriculture and possibly exported part of their crops. In addition, they had access to a rare green obsidian found near present-day Pachuca. There is the possibility that the warlike Toltecs produced relatively little themselves, instead relying on conquered vassal states to send them goods as tribute.

Tula and the Gulf Coast Traders

Toltec scholar Nigel Davies believed that during the Postclassic era trade was dominated by the different cultures of Mexico's Gulf Coast, where mighty civilizations had risen and fallen since the days of the ancient Olmec.

During Teotihuacán's age of dominance, shortly before the rise of the Toltecs, the gulf coast cultures had been an important force in Mesoamerican commerce, and Davies believes that the combination of Tula's location in the center of Mexico, their low production of trade goods, and their reliance on tribute over commerce placed the Toltecs at the fringes of Mesoamerican trade at the time (Davies, 284).

Sources:

Charles River Editors. The History and Culture of the Toltec. Lexington: Charles River Editors, 2014.

Cobean, Robert H., Elizabeth Jiménez García and Alba Guadalupe Mastache. Tula. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2012.

Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008

Davies, Nigel. The Toltecs: Until the Fall of Tula. Norman: the University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.