• Environment and Geography

    The Toltec culture arose on the high plains of what is now central Mexico. Their civic and religious center was located at Tula, around 100 km (60 miles) northeast of the pivotal site of Lake Texcoco, in the modern-day state of Hidalgo. The Toltec domain covered a region of wide valleys watered by large rivers, with two climate zones – one semi-arid, and another more humid zone associated with the Eastern Sierra Madre

  • Economy and Technology

    The Toltecs had an agricultural economy. They grew staples such as maize in large fields, watering them with a complex network of irrigation canals. Like other Mesoamerican cultures, they engaged actively in trade to obtain goods and raw materials from distant lands.

  • Art

    Stonework was the Toltec’s most well-developed art form. Many of their stone sculptures depicted military scenes and images of human sacrifice. One typical Toltec subject is the Chacmool, a figure seated in a relining posture, a cup resting on its stomach and head facing to one side. The architectural friezes of Tula are also noteworthy, with their representations of warriors, powerful animals such as the jaguar, coyote, and eagle, as well as the mythical feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl. Human body parts such as skulls and crossed long bones are also found alongside these scenes. Toltec architecture featured columns carved as warriors with atlatls (spear-throwers), spears, shields, and butterfly-shaped breastplates.

    The earliest Toltec ceramic style, the Coyotlatelco style, predates the founding of Tula. Classic elements of this style include the use of red and dark brown colors for decorating ceramic vessels. The Mazapa ceramic style developed later and spread throughout Mesoamerica as the Toltecs expanded their political dominion. The most characteristic Mazapa vessels are bowls decorated in the interior with straight or wavy lines and painted a bright red color. In addition to the Mazapa style, Toltec potters also worked in the Plumbate style, which originated in Guatemala and is one of the few New World ceramic styles that featured glazed surfaces. These were achieved by firing pieces with mineral paints in high temperature kilns.

  • Social Organization

    The Toltec State was formed from a number of tribal groups, principally the Toltec-Chichimec group. Toltec society was highly stratified, but its most powerful leaders were not priests and elders, as was the case in earlier cultures, but rather military chiefs organized into orders named after their totem animals: the coyote, the jaguar, and the eagle.

  • Beliefs and Funerary Practices

    Little is known of this culture’s burial practices, but their rituals are fairly well documented in their art. Gods such as Quetzalcoatl and rituals associated with them were clearly important. Human sacrifice, for example, was performed to slake their thirst for blood. Prisoners of war were the usual sacrificial victims, and their skulls were later put on public display in a wooden structure called a tzonpantli.

  • Settlement Pattern

    The Toltec culture inhabited fortified towns built around civic-ceremonial buildings, where the main square with an altar at the center was surrounded by palaces and stepped pyramids and courts for ball playing. The city of Tula, for instance, was built on a promontory overlooking the river, an easily defended location. The city was divided by streets and pathways, and social differences were reflected in the size, distribution, and building materials used in homes, which ranged from those built on residential platforms near the ceremonial sector to simpler “apartments” and three-room dwellings set around a central L-shaped patio, where domestic and daily ritual activities were conducted. In some districts, both productive and ceremonial activities were conducted in a neighborhood temple.

  • History

    The Toltec culture is thought to have emerged from the amalgamation of several ethnic groups, including elite groups from what is now northern Mexico. For example, the Toltec-Chichimec group came from a region between the modern-day states of Jalisco and Zacatecas, which marked the boundaries of the ancient Teotihuacan world. Their conquests gave them dominion over much of northern and central Mexico and even as far as the Guatemalan lowlands and the Yucatan Peninsula, and marked the birth of militarism in Mesoamerica. The reasons for the decline of the Toltec culture are not clear, but it is known that Toltec groups later emigrated to different areas, intermingling with local groups and bringing their ideas to other prominent cultures such as the Mayas and the Aztecs.