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The Toltec Empire



The Toltec people were an amalgam of people from southern Latin America that came together as one to form the Teotihuacan Empire.  The empire grew to include the Pacific Coastal Chiapas and Guatemala, the Yucatan Peninsula, and much of Northern and Western Mexico.  The society was agricultural that also depended on trade for survival.  Their society was also heavily influenced by religion, which was reflected in their architecture (i.e. The Avenue of the Dead).  The Toltec Empire had great strength from the 8th century up until their collapse in the 12th century.  During the peak of the Toltec society the name Toltec became a synonym for a “civilized person”, “artist”, or “master builder”.

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The origins of this “civilized' society is not very well-known because they did not have a written system of recording their history.  Most historians believe that the Toltec people is originated in migrant groups coming from southern Mexico through Hidalgo, starting the capital of Teotihuacan, Tula.

Those small groups of the Teotihuacan Empire were people from many smaller tribes that migrated together to the area of Teotihuacan.  These groups included the Nomoalcal and Chichimese people.  There were also groups of farmers fleeing south from the Mesoamerican area.  Both groups coincided with refugees from the Teotihuacan area to form the Toltec Empire.  With such diverse groups coming together there were obviously several languages spoken, however the most common language was Nahuatl.

Teotihuacan was located in the valley of Mexico, about 30-40 miles northeast of Mexico City.  By about AD 550, at its peak, Teotihuacan had anywhere from 100,000 to 125,000 inhabitants, who lived in an area of about 8 square miles.  At the center of the city was a 150-foot wide street, named the Avenue of the Dead.  Along the street were more than 75 temples, including the famous Pyramid of the Sun.  The equally famous Pyramid of the Moon was located more towards the northern side of the city.  We do not know the Toltec names for these places were: the names we use were given to them by the Mexica (Aztecs).

The pyramids, as well as the Avenue of the Dead were for religious ceremonies and practices.  Although the Toltecs worshipped many gods, their main god was Quetzacoatl.  The name Quetzacoatl is derived from “quetzalli”, which means a Mexican bird, and “cohuatla”, a snake.  The icon associated with Zuetzacoatl is a feathered serpent dressed in a dress with a red cross adorning the front.  There are many stories of him teaching brotherhood and peace, creating many technological advances, being a deity of fertility and the wind.  However, all end with him leaving on a raft of serpents promising to return one day (the year of Ce Acatl/the reed by Aztec myth).  This god was passed down and worshipped not only by the Toltec people but also the Mayas, under the name Kukulcan, and the Aztecs.

Religious ceremonies aside, the Toltec Empire were mainly agricultural; they depended on several crops to sustain life.  They were able to grow beans, squash, and cacti.  The cacti grew fruit that the people could eat; they didn't actually eat the cactus.  Their diet also included the meat of rabbits and dogs.  The main crop was maize (corn).  They depended mainly on these crops but they also traded goods with other regions.

Much of what was traded was the artwork of the Toltecs.  The people made small personal ornaments and small statues that could be traded easily.  The people also were skilled in pottery and textiles.  Another valuable trade resource was metal and stone tools because the location of the Teotihuacan Empire was in the immediate vicinity of the richest Mesoamerican deposits of exceptional obsidian.  The Toltec people were among the first that we know of that were skilled in metalworking.

The downfall of the Toltec Empire is as mysterious as its creation.  Through artifacts found, it can be said that around 650 the city was intentionally burned down.  By 750, the once esteemed Teotihuacan Empire became a series of small, dispersed rural towns.  Some theories the explain the mysterious downfall include:

1.                  The region became extremely barren and could no longer support the growing population.

2.                  Conflict and revolution occurred within the empire brought on by a sever drought.

3.                  The growing Toltec Empire intimidated neighboring city-states and they felt no other option but to attack the Empire.

At this point in time there is no evidence to suggest one of these theories more is likely than another.  We may never know exactly what brought about the Empire or what brought it down. 


Diehl, Richard A., "Toltecs." Latin American History and Culture.   Ed. Barbara A Tenecbaum. vol. 5, p. 250. New York: Simon     and Schuster Macmillan, 1996. 

Fowler, William R., "Mesoamerica." The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Latin America and the Caribbean. Ed. Simon Collier. p. 390. Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Kowaski, Jeff Karl, "Chacmools." Latin American History and Culture.  Ed. Barbara A.     Tenecbaum. vol. 2, p. 69. New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996

"Toltecs." Encyclopedia of Latin American History.  Ed. Michael Martin and Gabriel Lovett. p.313. New York: the Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc. 1968.

"Toltecs." Indian Art of Mexico and Central America. Ed. Miguel Covarrubias. p. 364-365.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.

Spodek, Howard. The World's History. Vol. 1.  New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Edited,  Researched and Written by: 
Luke Palmerlee and Lea Hollis
November 17, 2000

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