Toltec Civilization: People, Culture & Social Structure

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

The Toltec Civilization, as ancestors to the mighty Aztecs, provided them with a rich heritage that allowed them to rule Mesoamerica before the coming of the Spanish. If you would like to learn more about the Toltecs, this lesson is for you.

The Toltec Civilization

Imagine enormous buildings made from pure gold, jade, and turquoise. The Toltecs had pyramids made from these precious minerals that rivaled anything created in the region since the dawn of man.

Sandwiched between the Olmec Civilization and the Aztec Civilization, the Toltec Civilization controlled Mesoamerica from the 900s CE through the 1100s CE. They controlled the region now known as Mexico around the area of Culhuacan in the Mexican Valley. Their capital Tollan boasted a population of around 40,000 in its heyday.

The Toltecs really were a jack of all trades type of civilization and mastered many different forms of building, agriculture, art, and trade. Let's see how these talents affected their social structure.

Toltec Culture

The Toltec were warriors and innovators of architecture and artistry. The importance of warfare to the Toltec can be seen in the remnants of their massive monuments.

Four, load-bearing columns supported the roof of a pyramid (known as Pyramid B) and are sculptures of Toltec warriors. Each of the columns feature the battle garb of the Toltec designed with multicolored headdresses and holding an atlatl, a Toltec spear thrower. Each column is basically identical, which hints that the Toltec were familiar with scientific management and mass production.

Pyramid B at Tollan

The pyramids found in Tollan all contain artwork called friezes, which are long sections of walls decorated with paintings and sculptures engraved into the surface. One such frieze found at Pyramid B was over 130 feet tall and had images of jaguars and coyotes - symbols of war.

Quetzal feathers were large colorful feathers worn by the Toltec and the Aztecs, a tribute to the importance of multicolored feathers. Quetzal feathers adorned the headdresses of Toltec warriors and Toltec nobility. They are also a part of the imagery of some of the Toltec deities like their sun god Quetzalcoatl, who is always pictured with the quetzal feathers that bear his name.

Toltec Society

Like most Mesoamerican cultures, the Toltec had a hierarchical society that placed much importance on military conquest.

The Toltec nobility were warriors who had advanced themselves in battle to the upper echelon of power. They were joined in the upper class by the holy men of the Toltec who may have also been warriors as well.

Human and blood sacrifices would have been a large part of this class. In their view, sacrificial offerings to the gods was essential to ruling the Toltec army and government. This belief can been seen clearly in their art. For example, the tzompantli is a rack made from the skulls of vanquished foes or sacrifices to the gods.

Military nobility and religious leaders would have had to beseech the gods for permission prior to attempting an attack. For these reasons, the upper class of the Toltec would have to include both military and religious leaders working in tandem over the government, military, and religious rituals.

Middle Class Toltec Society

The middle class of Toltec society included the craftsmen and other skilled artists who not only made jewelry and friezes, but made pottery as well. Artisans made the fine gold, turquoise and jade jewelry that would have been worn by the nobility. The Aztecs considered them so skilled that they named their own jewelry makers and metal workers 'tolteca'.

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