Toltecs, a people who dominated central Mexico in the years 950–1150/1200 ce and exerted influence over much of the territory of modern Mexico and Central America. Their capital Tula (Nahuatl: Tollan) occupied a ridge overlooking the Tula River in Hidalgo, 40 miles northwest of modern Mexico City. Spanish chroniclers recorded Aztec legends and historical traditions about the Toltecs and Quetzalcoatl, their semi legendary ruler, whose identity and exploits became fused with those of the Feathered Serpent, his deified namesake. Unfortunately, contradictions are so abundant in these accounts that it is difficult to reconstruct a coherent Toltec history. Archaeological investigations at Tula and elsewhere add substantially to the corpus of data, but it is difficult to reconcile much of this information with the ethnohistoric accounts.
Ethnically and linguistically the Toltecs were an amalgam of small migrant groups who entered southern Hidalgo during Teotihuacán's last decades. They included the Nonoalca, refugees from Teotihuacán itself, and the Chichimecs, farmers fleeing south from the increasingly turbulent Mesoamerican frontier zone in north Mexico. There is good reason to believe that Nahuatl was the dominant language in Toltec society, although speakers of Otomí and perhaps other Otomanguean languages were also present in significant numbers.
Agriculture was the basis of Toltec existence, and maize was the staple crop. Beans, squash, cactus fruits and juice, numerous minor plants, and the flesh of dogs, deer, and rabbits all supplemented the diet. Although irrigation was practiced where possible, adequate subsistence was a recurrent problem in this arid region and became a paramount concern as the population grew. The recorded legends suggest that famine, perhaps triggered by decreasing rainfall, led to civil war and, ultimately, Tula's abandonment in the twelfth century.
In addition to farming, the Toltec economy depended upon craft production and commerce. Pottery, stone tools, textiles, personal ornaments, and other products were manufactured in the city and exchanged in markets. Specialized merchants imported fancy pottery, marine shells, green stones, rare animal skins and feathers, cacao, exotic foods, and other luxury goods into Tula while distributing Toltec products far from their homeland.
The evidence suggests the existence of a Toltec empire, but its extent and duration are unknown. Some archaeologists believe it included Pacific coastal Chiapas and Guatemala, the Yucatán peninsula with its Toltec-Maya center of Chichén Itzá, and much of north and west Mexico, but others challenge this hypothesis.
The Aztecs proudly claimed Toltec ancestry and praised their putative forebears as warriors, master craftsmen, builders, and wise men. They exaggerated, perhaps intentionally, the justifiably impressive accomplishments of the Toltecs while creating a historical fiction designed to validate their own status. The Aztec embellishments notwithstanding, the Toltec legacy in modern Mexico remains considerable.
Nigel Davies, The Toltecs Until the Fall of Tula (1977).
William T. Sanders, Jeffrey R. Parsons, and Robert S. Santley, The Basin of Mexico: The Ecological Processes in the Evolution of a Civilization (1979).
Nigel Davies, The Toltec Heritage (1980).
Muriel Porter Weaver, The Aztecs, Maya, and Their Predecessors: Archaeology of Mesoamerica, 2d ed. (1981).
Richard A. Diehl, Tula: The Toltec Capital of Ancient Mexico (1983).
Healan, Dan M. Tula of the Toltecs: Excavations and Survey. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.
Kirchoff, Paul, Lina Odena Güemes, and Luis Reyes García. Historia tolteca-chichimeca. México: CISINAH, INAH, SEP, 1976.
Nicholson, H. B. Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs (Mesoamerican Worlds). Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2001.
Richard A. Diehl