Totonac Culture, Language & Art

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

Let's explore the contemporary and historical culture of the Totonac people, one of Mexico's indigenous groups. Find out how unique their language is, some of their ancestors' accomplishments, and why you might find them diving off a 30-meter pole.

They Are Still Here!

While we may visit archaeological sites in Mexico or in the neighboring countries of Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, we should try not to look at these cities and temples as a snapshot of a past lost in time or of a people who no longer exist. Many people from those civilizations through Mesoamerica are still alive today, speaking the same language, or a variant of it, their ancestors spoke and practicing some of the same customs. One of these groups is the Totonac culture whose people live in Mexico today.

While they are no longer building large stone cities and temples, their stories claim they were the builders of Teotihuacán, an ancient and complex city in Mexico. However, recent evidence shows the Otomí, another indigenous group, are the descendants of the Teotihuacános, but you will never convince a Totonac person. Perhaps, as the ancient city housed many people, their Totonac ancestors played a role in building and running the city. However, their ancestors did build the cities of Quiahuiztlan and El Tajín, impressive in their own right.

Tombs in Quiahuiztlan
tombs

Life Among the Totonac

Today, the Totonac live in the Mexican states of Veracruz, Puebla, and Hidalgo where they grow corn, cassava melons, pumpkins, beans, squash, and chili peppers. Their rich lands also produce cotton and liquid amber. This land gave them incredible power, especially during the great famine of 1450-1454 CE. Many Aztec, who could neither produce food from the land nor conquer neighboring people to take their food, sold their families and themselves into slavery, trading their freedom to the Totonac in order to have enough food to survive. While the Totonac grew an abundance of crops, they also included wild game such as deer, armadillo, opossum, frogs, fish, and sharks in their diet as well as domestically raised turkeys.

Language

The language of the Totonac is unique among indigenous Mesoamerican languages in that it has no known relationship to any other languages or language families. The two main branches of the language are called Totonaco and Tepehua, though at present there are approximately nine closely related dialects spoken today, grouped by their relationship to the Totonaco and Tepehua branches of the language family tree.

Art

Pre-Columbian Totonac people are known for their skill in stone carving. To date, anthropologists have found several hundred U-shaped, stone objects with beautiful and intricate designs. Originally called ''yokes'' after the U-shaped equipment used to harness cattle to plows, these objects are much smaller and clearly not meant for agriculture.

Totonac Yokes
Carving

The majority of these sculptures come from the ancient cities of the Totonac, including Quiahuiztlan and El Tajín and a variety are on display in Mexico's Museo Nacional de Antropología. Currently, archaeologists suspect these are representations of the belts worn around the hips of athletes who played an ancient ball game common throughout Mesoamerica.

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