Toltec Civilization: Contributions & Inventions

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Before the Aztecs, there were the Toltecs. In this lesson, we'll explore this mysterious ancient civilization, and see what cultural and economic impacts they had on Mesoamerica.

The Toltecs

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, the people of the Aztec Empire certainly thought so. Their empire was largely modeled on one which predated them, one which had already reached its peak and fallen into decline by the time the Mexica people arrived and founded their city of Tenochtitlán. This was the Toltec civilization.

While they did fight wars against each other, the Aztecs revered the Toltecs so much that to ''have a Toltec heart'' (Toltecayotl) was a phrase used to describe someone who excelled at something. The Toltec civilization was renowned for its craftsmanship, building prowess, and inventiveness. They were one of the great civilizations of Mesoamerica, and left a major impact on the cultures that followed.

Overview of Toltec History

So, who exactly were the Toltecs? These Nahuatl-speaking people originated in what is now the Mexican state of Hidalgo. Their capital city was Tollan, which was likely founded in the 9th century CE. Over the next 300 years, the Toltec built an empire in Mexico through military conquest and vast commercial networks. While their empire was not as large as the Aztecs' would be, it made them incredibly wealthy. Aztec accounts described Tollan as being filled with buildings covered in gold and jade, as well as sacred quetzal feathers.

Ruins of a Tollan temple
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The Toltecs were highly revered craftspeople and artisans, and the exerted considerable influence over Mesoamerica through their trade empire. No one knows exactly why the civilization collapsed, but the popular story is that Tollan fell to civil war. Archeologists also think that it may have simply become too overcrowded, with some claiming that its population reached over 40,000 people. Weakened, Tollan fell to invaders around 1150 CE and was nearly demolished.

Toltec Contributions: Art and Architecture

In Mesoamerica, Toltec artisans were famous. They were some of the most advanced potters of the ancient world, and were also skilled metallurgists who worked with precious metals like gold. Of course, they also mined and worked obsidian (primarily for weapons), which also required a great degree of skill. Overall, Toltec artisans set the standards that other Mexican civilizations would try to live up to for the next several centuries.

Toltec ceramics were very advanced
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Tollan was also respected for its architecture, which was complex and ornate. Pyramids existed in Mexico long before the Toltecs, but the Toltecs took it to new levels of craftsmanship. The carved and painted columns and friezes of Tollan's temples are not only well done, but are so consistent that some have speculated that Tollan workshops were capable of mass production. The impact of Toltec architectural innovations and designs can be seen across Mexico. In fact, even several Maya cities in the Yucatán, such as Chichen Itza, were rebuilt with Toltec influence in this time period.

Agriculture

The Toltec wealth was sustained by trading their ceramics and weapons and crafts, but supporting such a large number of craftspeople meant that Tollan had to be able to produce a lot of food. Agriculture was very important to Toltec civilization, and the Toltecs developed new irrigation techniques to produce more abundant crops. Most notably, the Toltecs introduced hillside terracing, where the amount of irrigable land on a steep slope was increased by building flat platforms of earth, supported by retaining walls. It took a lot of engineering prowess to pull off, but terraced agriculture increased the productivity of their crops, and the Aztecs later claimed the Toltecs bred numerous new strains of maize in a spectrum of colors.

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