Monday, February 26, 2007

Mesoamerican Tidbits: Did the Toltecs Rule an Empire?

Aztec writings and traditions tell of the hallowed Toltecs-- the builders of a nearly ideal empire whose art, science, ceremony, and mastery of the region were unequaled.

The Florentine Codex spoke glowingly of the Tolteca:

"Their works were all good, all perfect, all wonderful, all marvelous... These Tolteca were righteous. They were not deceivers. Their words clear words... They were tall; they were larger... They were very devout... They were rich."

The Toltecs were credited by the Aztecs with inventing the art of medicine, as well as inventing the Mesoamerican calendar. All Aztec nobles by birth claimed their legitimacy by tracing their ancestry to the Toltecs.

Archaeologists for many years accepted the idea that Tollan (now known as Tula) was the capitol of a large empire which controlled much of northern Mesoamerica. Archaeological finds of art across the region bearing clear Toltec influence, combined with uncanny architectural similaries in far-away Chichen Itza and Guatemalan oral histories claiming Toltec ancestry, all seemed to be sufficient evidence to corroborate the Aztec accounts.

Evidence of Empire

But is there sufficient evidence that Tula was the seat of power for a far-reaching empire?

While many archaeologists and ethnohistorians continue to accept the Toltec empire without question, a growing number of noted scholars see no real evidence that the Toltecs militarily dominated a large area. It seems clear that the Toltec traded across large distances, and may also have been responsible for spreading the cult of Quetzalcoatl, but the area of their political influence was actually quite small (Smith and Montiel, 2001).

One of the biggest arguments made by supporters of a Toltec empire involves the Toltec "conquest" of the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Mayan legend in the Yucatan tells of a king Quezalcoatl from Tollan who conquered Chichen Itza, and remade the city center to look like his old home. This story fits well with the striking and uniquely shared architectural features of the ceremonial centers of both Tula and Chichen Itza, and easily supported the empire theory. The big problem is that recent dating of materials associated with the decline of Chichen Itza place them squarely in the Classic period, while Tula is a post-Classic site. In other words, if there was any copying of architecture, it happened the other way around!

Then Why All the Fuss?

So, if there was no Toltec empire, why did the Aztecs make such a big deal about them?

The Mexica (as the Aztecs called themselves) arrived in the Valley of Mexico well after many other groups in the post-Classic period. They were poor, and only managed to survive by hiring on as mercenaries to one of the larger city states in the valley. Over time, they pulled themselves up from their humble beginnings, building a town which would one day become the center of their empire.

Most of the people living in the central highlands of Mexico proudly claimed the Toltecs as their ancestors, including the Mexica. As their ambitions grew, so did the picture they painted of the Toltecs. If the Mexica were destined to rule a great empire, then the legitimacy to do so must be great, as well. By portraying the Toltecs as being much more than they really were, it helped to sell the idea that their descendants, the Mexica, were destined to be just as great.

Remember Bernardino de Sahagun's entry in the Florentine Codex? He never saw the Toltec-- he only heard about them from the Mexica: "Their works were all good, all perfect, all wonderful, all marvelous..." It certainly sounds too good to be true, especially for an empire that rose and fell in just 250 years. But it made a good story for the Aztecs to tell to the people from whom they were demanding tribute.

If you want to read more, take a look at the paper below by Michael Smith and Lisa Montiel. They have built a model for evaluating whether a polity was or was not an empire.


Sahagun, FB (1950-1982) Florentine Codex, General history of the things in New Spain. School of American Research and the Univ of Utah Press, Sante Fe/Salt Lake City.

Smith ME and Montiel L (2001) the Archaeological Study of Empires and Imperialism in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico. J Anthropological Archaeology, 20:245-284.

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