Toltec Civilization Essay, Research Paper
The Priest stood atop the temple of the Sun, looking down on his people gathered
for this event. With one swift movement, he raised the sacrificial obsidian dagger and
plunged it into the young man’s chest, tearing out his heart. He then placed the heart on
the waiting chac-mool, smiled, and anounced the beginning of celebration.
The Toltecs were one of the first “Nahuatl” speaking cultures to colonize central
Mexico. It is unclear whether they came from the North or the South, but, popular theory
is that they came from the North (Southern America). The tribe first settled a small
distance west of what is now Mexico City. There, they built the largest city ever in
Mexico, even dwarfing today’s Mexico City (von Hagen, Sun, pp. 20, 29)! The Toltecs
ruled over this town from 200 B.C to 900 A.D (Sabloff, p. 112). Then, something forced
them to leave; climate change, foreigners, a war, nobody knows.
The Toltecs then migrated about 50 miles North. There, they settled and began to
build the town called Tula (Gruzinski, p. 14). They resided there until 1100 A.D (Sabloff,
p. 112). In around 987 A.D or so, the Toltec priest- king Quezalcoatl (who was actually a
god. There are also records of a man named Topiltzin who apparently followed the same
course as Quetzalcoatl. It was unclear who was who, or if they were the same person.)
was forced to flee with a few of his followers (Gruzinski, p. 14). He fled to the Yucatan
peninsula, where the Mayas resided. He then proceeded to build a gigantic city called
Chichen Itza (von Hagen, Maya, p 39).
Here, we switch to Mayan history, which discusses the leadership of a man called
Kukulcan, which means “feathered-serpent,” or Quetzalcoatl (von Hagen, Sun, p. 332).
He ruled over this culture for some time, then he decided to leave. Again, there is no
evidence saying why he left. On the year 1-Reed( a Toltec measure of time), he set sail
West in the Atlantic ocean, with the prophesy that he would return on the recurrence of
that date (von Hagen, Sun, p. 28).
Meanwhile, back in Tula, things were disintegrating in the Toltec culture. Their
society was becoming progressively warlike, as was evidenced in their art. They began
corrupting political power and becoming greedy for money. They raped the villagers with
taxes using the gods as their athority (Townsend, p. 49-50). This brought about a civil
war which thouroughly destroyed the Toltecs (Gruzinski, p.15).
Yes, the Toltec people definitely practiced human sacrifice. Immediately, one
thinks what the Spaniards thought when they observed the Aztecs performing the same
ritual 600 years later: “Savages!”
In this paper, I will try to convince you why you should not consider the Toltecs
savages, but consider them the epitome of civilization. If I am to prove this to you, we
must have an understanding of what the word “civilization” means.
There are two traits that I think are needed for a functional society. These two
traits are planning, and the group over the one. I will explain each of these in turn, but
first, I will talk about one other idea. This idea is not a trait of civilized cultures, but is
more of a method to check the effectiveness of the culture’s practices. Does the civilized
people’s ways work for other groups of people?
If a culture is civilized, it would follow that another group of people, following
that culture’s ways, would become civilized themselves. I think this is an ingenious
method to check the workability of the civilization. If the civilized people’s ways would
not work for someone else, it would be hard to call them civilized.
The Toltecs provide a rare opportunity to witness this in action. They touched
almost every Mexican civilization that came after them. Later in this paper, I will show
you two of them: the Maya and the Aztecs.
A byproduct of a civilization is technology. The main purpose of bringing forth a
civilization is to make life better. What technology does is make life easier. A good
example of this is the wheel.
The wheel is considered the most important invention in history. The reason it was
invented, it seems, was to make the movement of large, heavier objects easier. It,
therefore, makes life easier. Technological advancements of this kind do not occur
naturally without the help of civilized minds.
One trait, almost exclusively exhibited by civilized societies, is the idea that the
group is more important than the one. If one picks almost any civilization that ever arose
on the planet, one will see this trait. The only place that I have seen where this is not true
is in early European monarchies.
A couple of Europe’s monarchies were all right; the king or queen genuinely cared
about the people. But, in most that I have learned about, the monarchs cared only for
themselves, and gaining power. One must look at the carnage they have waged upon
every other civilization on Earth, especially in the Americas. Putting the group before the
one is obviously a needed characteristic for any civilization to survive.
As I will show you, not only did the Toltecs excell in technology and emphasize
the group, but they also taught two other tribes how to become civilized.
In Aztec, “Toltec” means “builder” (Tomkins, p. 20). This was no coincidence.
When the Aztecs rewrote history, they attributed to the Toltecs the invention of painting,
literature, sculpture, astronomy, and architecture (Gruzinski, p. 14). In Aztec culture, a
master craftsman of any type was called Toltec, which was the highest form of compliment
(von Hagen, Sun, p. 29).
What stands out most in Toltec technology has to be its architecture. Their first
major city was Teotihuacan, located a couple of miles east of what is now Mexico City.
Teotihuacan was by far the greatest city in all Mexico, as it is still the largest. It
was built around 200 B.C. and occupied by Toltecs for about 1100 years until 900 A.D.,
when they were forced out by unknown forces (Sabloff, p. 112).
The first feature the visitor to Teotihuacan notices is the Sun Temple, the largest
pyramid in Mexico, even rivaling Egyptian pyramids. This poses an interesting question:
are they related? The pyramid is 216 ft. high and covers about 10 acres. It was built using
a stepped-wall architecture, which is what all subsequent pyramids were based on (von
Hagen, Sun, p. 31).
An interesting discovery about this pyramid is that it appears to have been built in
stages. A series of 6 smaller pyramids have been found underneath the outer shell
(Tompkins, p. 334).
The pyramid was probably used for ceremonial purposes, as is evidenced by the
haunting figure of chac-mool. The chac-mool is a statue reclining in a semi-situp position.
The head, which is held upward, faces away from its stomach, where it holds a dish. On
this dish were placed freshly torn human hearts (Sabloff, p. 112).
The temple shows an overall sense of planning. Could such a masterpiece been
erected by even an army of primitive people? Only large scale planning could have
acomplished this, which can be seen in Teotihuacan’s three other large structures: the
Moon temple, the temple of Quetzalcoatl, and the priest-king’s palace (von Hagen, Aztec,
Planning on a much grander scale can easily be seen if looking at the city as a
whole. First, apparently every square foot of the city was paved. Instead of reinventing
concrete for the Romans, though, the Toltecs used small stones and a type of mortar. No
small task (Tompkins, p. 189).
Through the center of the city there is a completely straight road running the
length of the city North and South. At the North end is the Moon Temple, and at the
other end is the palace and temple of Quetzalcoatl. In the center, facing west, is the Sun
Temple. They are all evenly spaced (von Hagen, Aztec, p. 39).
Even the houses of the common people show a sense of purpose. They are evenly
laid out in subdivisions coming off the main road. Each house itself was functionally laid
out with different rooms set up for different things (Tompkins, p. 189).
The most mysterious thing about the city was its destruction. The whole city was
buried under dirt, even the monolithic Sun temple! After digging up some buildings, a
digger named Leopoldo Batres noticed that they appeared to have been burned. this
burning would support the idea that some foreign tribe forced them out.
But Bateres noticed one other small detail that says something different. The
burial of some of the smaller buildings was done in a peculiar fasion: the interiors were
filled with neatly piled stones fit together with cement. This raises yet another interesting
question: did the Toltecs destroy their own city? If this is true, it would just be more
evidence of their civilized nature, as no uncivilized group of people could have planned or
accomplished this feat (Tompkins, p. 189).
Other evidence of technological prowess comes in the form of small discoveries,
one of which was used in farming.
Teotihuacan posed a problem for farming, as the whole city was paved. Its
location also posed a problem: it was built next to no source of water. It had to
constantly import water from the nearby lake Texcoco. The Toltecs solved this problem
in a unique way: They brought the crops to the water.
The Toltecs were masters of art and weaving, so they used this skill to help them
in their agricultural problem. They wove large baskets(15 ft. in diameter) and filled them
with peat moss. They would then plant their crops in these and float them in bodies of
water. This ingenious method could only have been thought up through the cooperation
of many minds (Burland, p. 40).
One strange twist of this Toltec genius is one that should have stunted their own
growth: they did not use wheels. There is almost unanumous agreement that this was
perhaps the most important invention in the history of mankind. Archeologists have found
wheels in only one small place in Toltec culture: toys. They apparently never used wheels
in any type of labor or hauling. It is almost as if the idea had never occured to them (von
Hagen, Sun, p. 113).
There may be a logical and simple answer to this mystery. Before the arrival of the
Spaniards, there were no horses in the Americas. The Toltecs no pack animals. If they
had carriages with wheels made to pull heavy weight, who would pull them? The logical
answer to this one would be people, or more specifically, slaves.
This lack of wheels(if we attribute this to lack of pack animals) would seem to say
that either the Toltecs did not think of using their slaves to pull the burden, or , they had
no slaves. If I had a slave, the first thing I would make them do is carry my things, and I
sould think that the Toltecs were as smart as I am. So that leaves one option: the Toltecs
did not have slaves.
(the rest of this is my own opinion)
Why did the Toltecs not keep slaves? They were certainly capable of gaining
them. There is evidence that in their wars, they did take prisoners; but, these prisoners
were used almost exclusively for sacrifice. I think that this shows a certain respect for
human life, definitely a civilized trait.
Human life was highly respected in Toltec culture. One might think the opposite
because, as stated earlier, the Toltecs practiced human sacrifice. This may sound like they
have no feelings for life, but consider this.
The reason Toltecs (as well as any culture) make any kind of offering to the gods
is to have them look favorably upon their people. The ultimate gift for anyone would be
one’s own life. If you offer a human life to a god, you are giving what means most to
you. Human life meant a lot to thge Toltecs, which is why they offered it to the gods.
Since the greatest gift you can give is life, I will talk about birth. When a mother
gives birth, it is almost a festive occasion. Immediately after birth, an attending midwife
congradulates the mother for having fought a good battle and for having “captured” a
baby. She then speaks to the child as she would an honored, weary traveler, and asks it to
rest among its parents (Townsend, p. 156).
When the indian was born, he/she became part of a group of families who owned a
piece of land. When it was time for marriage, the man would be given his own piece of
land to live off. He built his house on the land and was expected to farm it. If, for any
reason, the man did not work the land, it would be taken back by the clan (von Hagen,
Sun, p. 36).
The feminist ideal seemed to be going strong at this time, as is shown by failed
marriages. Divorces were not unheard of in Toltec culture. If the man was not doing his
job or supporting his family, the woman could have a divorce arranged and be remarried
to a more ablebodied man. Of course, if the woman was unable to produce children, the
man could also arrange a divorce (von Hagen, World, p. 35).
An interesting contrast between Toltecs and another “civilized” culture, early
Europeans, has to do with individual status in the society. In Europe, the people were
divided by classes. They could not change what class the were born into, but were stuck
for life. In the Toltec way of life, the people were divided by rank. An Indian, when born,
was considered an Indian, nothing else. This was independant of what rank the parents
held. Indians were put into political positions becauseof their merit, not their status (von
Hagen, Sun, p. 36).
This shows a fundamental viewpoint in Toltec culture. the tribe as a whole was
more important than any one man. This concept went even as deep as their education.
From birth, an Indian was taught to work and to become a benificial member of society
(Townsend, p. 156).
These are the traits of a highly civilized society. Only a society which has the
“Group over One” mindset can grow to the advanced stage of cultural development that
the Toltecs achieved.
Maya and Aztec
The Toltecs had an effect on all Mexican civilizations. In this section, I will
describe the effects the Toltecs had on two major Mexican tribes: the Maya and the
Aztecs. I will begin with the Maya.
The Maya were a peaceful culture living in some small towns south of the
Yucatan. At this time they had not developed a system of writing, so archeologists had to
infer greatly from their art (von Hagen, Sun, p. 120).
Around 900 A.D., the Mayan peoples began the “Great Descent,” in which they
moved away from the cities and into the Yucatan. During this time, the Mayan culture
sunk to an all time low (von Hagen, Sun, p. 120). Soon after the Great Descent, a man
and his followers arived in the Yucatan. This man taught the Maya his knowledge and
rebuilt the abandoned Maya city Chichen Itza. This began the Mayan Renaissance. They
developed their own writing system and their own style of archetecture (von Hagen, Sun,
In time, the man who came from the west built the Maya capitol, Mayapan. The
Maya adopted this man as their king and savior, calling him Kukulcan, which, in Maya,
means “feathered serpent” (von Hagen, Sun, p. 332).
Many similarities between the Mayan city Chichen Itza and the Toltec’s Tula give
more evidence for this story. Before I show you these similarities, though, I will give a
short description of each city.
After leaving Teotihuacan, the Toltecs moved north about 50 miles. There, they
built the city of Tula. Tula seems to have been built because of the need of a city, as there
seems to have been much less planning involved than at Teotihuacan. There is none of the
elegant symmetry like that shown at Teotihuacan. The houses were laid out in a very
hapazard manner; room layout was not planned at all. The only planning that seems to
have taken place was in the temples, palace and ball courts (Sabloff, pp. 192-193).
After it was built, Tula, or the legendary Tollan, as the Aztecs called it, embodied
all that was great in Teotihuacan, and more. No one showed the grandeour better than the
Spanish monk Bernardo de Sahagun when he described Tula as having “rich palaces of
green jade and white and red shell, where the ears of corn and pumpkins reached the size
of a man, where cotton grew in the plant in all colours and the air was filled with rare birds
of precious feather…” (von Hagen, Sun, p. 30). Truly, this was a fantastic place.
Almost the same thing could be said about Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza was a
moderately sized city, but was the center of Mayan culture at the time of its height.
The major building in Chichen Itza is the temple of Kukulkan. From this structure,
al things radiate. From the front runs a large ceremonial walkway, which leads to a large
well, called a cenote. Into this was thrown gems and jewels and other precious items.
Sacrificial victims were also thrown in (von Hagen, Sun, p. 168).
To the right of the temple is a large court in which they played the great ball game,
Pok-a-tok. The game was not unlike basketball, in that the players had to get a rubber ball
into a hoop, even though that hoop was 30 ft high and vertical. The players could only
use their elbws or hips. This was a big event, rivaling a sacrifice, and the spectators bet
heavily (von Hagen, Sun, 162).
To the left lay the temple of the Warriors, which contained the local market. To
the rear lay the remains of the old city (von Hagen, Sun, p. 168).
The similarities are hard to miss when seeing the two of them. The easiest example
to see are the temples. Both the temple of Kukulkan and the temple of Tula are built in
the form of the truncated pyramid. A truncated pyramid has four sides with each side
looking like a large staircase. Each Temple has a stairway on each of the four sides and an
enclosed structure at the top (von Hagen, Sun, p. 195).
The temple of the Warriors was built in the same fasion, but had two similar
features found nowhere outside of Toltec influence. On the outskirts of both temples,
there are hundreds of evenly spaced pillars used to hold up wooden roof beams. Only the
temple of the Warriors and the temple of Tula had those. The other characteristically
Toltec feature on both temples are the chac-mools. Both chac-mools are almost exactly
the same except for different facial features (von Hagen, Sun, p. 195).
Another feature similar about the two citiex is their art. In Tula, many motifs have
been found depicting marching jaguars and eagles. That very same thing has been found
in Chichen Itza (von Hagen, Sun, p. 196).
Perhaps the most important piece of information has to do with Quetzalcoatl.
Earlier, I said that he traveled to Yucatan. This is not exactly true. This has been infered
by some ironic historical events. First, around 987 A.D, Quetzalcoatl was said to have left
Tula. At almost the same time in Mayan history, the man named Kukulkan arived in the
Yucatan. The Mayas loved him so much that they made him their king. Kukulkan then
proceeded to teach them his culture. While he was doing this, the Mayas went through
their won renaissance and their culture was restarted. No doubt Kukulkan had something
to do with this (von Hagen, Sun, p. 332).
Let us try a simple thought experiment. The Mayas are considered by
archeologists to have been civilized. I do not have the time, nor the space to prove this,
so we will take it as a fact. The Mayas became civilized after Kukulkan taught them his
ways. It would follow that Kukulkan, himself, was civilized. Therefore, since he was
originally Toltec, this would make the Toltecs, themselves, civilized.
The Aztecs were by far the most popular civilization ever to arise in Mexico.
Most of the accounts of the Toltecs came frome them. They held the Toltecs in the
highest respect, even basing their own culture on them.
When the Aztecs moved in around lake Texcoco, they found the ruins of
Teotihuacan and other small cities. They were in awe of the technological level of the
builders and gave them the name “Toltec,” which means “builder” or “artist” (Tompkins,
p. 20). They then burned all the historical records and wrote their own, putting the
Toltecs in the paramount position. They believed they were the descendants of the Toltecs
(von Hagen, Aztec, p. 39).
Looking at the architecture, art, customs, and religion of the Aztecs, one finds
almost perfect simularity. The Aztecs took almost every thing from the Toltecs. They
built the same style temples, had the same gods, used the same artistic style, and
performed the same human sacrifice rituals. One even finds the familiar chac-mool atop
many of the temples.
The Toltec culture was so great that, not only did it travel throughout Mexico, but
also traveled beyond the grave.
Not only did the Toltecs emphasize the group and excell in technology, but they
also taught two tribes to become civilized. Emphasizing the group is a key factor in
civilized cultures. If everyone in a group works for themselves, they are limiting their own
advancement. But, if they all work for the group, the group will prosper and grow.
Technology is a necessary byproduct of civilization. When people come up with
ideas that will benifit the group, the ideas usually take the form of inventions. When
people work in groups, the individual ideas of the people travel through the generations.
These two actions, when done together, result in usable technology that benifits all.
The Toltec ideals for society worked for both the Maya and the Aztecs. These
cultures grew to be the two most well known civilizations in Mexico. This says a lot for
the Toltecs. It says that the Toltecs were the fathers of civilization.
When Cortez landed in the midst of the Aztecs, what he was witnessing was the
enduring Toltec culture. He then saw a human sacrifice and decided the fate of these
barbaric people. A civilized culture is one that does not destroy every other culture
because of different beliefs. One must wonder, which is more civilized: human sacrifice
One small tidbit about dates. When Quetzalcoatl sailed off to the west, he left the
Mayas with a prophesy. “On the recurrence of this date, 1-Reed, I will return to Mexico.”
I was wondering if Quetzalcoatl ever did return and did some research on the subject.
Looking at the dates, I made a startling discovery. The year 1-Reed falls on the year
1512, the year Cortez landed in Mexico. This was a haunting revelation, and can be
interpreted in many ways. One can say that it was coincidence, but I don’t choose to think
so. I think Quetzalcoatl knew what he was saying, but encrypted the message. I think he
knew what was going to happen. . .
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Sabloff, Jeremy A. The Cities of Ancient Mexico. New York, New York: Thames and
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_______________________.. World of the Maya. New York: Signet Classics, 1960: