The Toltecs

Learning Objective

  • Identify the Toltecs

Key Points

  • Much of what is known about the Toltecs is based on what has been learned about the Aztecs.
  • Historicists believe that Aztec accounts of the Toltecs can be trusted as historical sources.
  • Others believe that Aztec accounts are too shrouded in myth to be trusted as sources of truth.
  • Certain Mayan sites, such as Chichén Itzá, share distinctive archeological traits with religious monuments and buildings in Tula.



The feathered serpent deity that appears in carvings at Tula and also in much later buildings and mythology in the Aztec Empire.


A scholar that utilizes Aztec accounts of Toltec culture to piece together the history of the Toltec people.

Atlantean figures

Gigantic stone statues of Toltec warriors that only appear at the sites of Tula, Chichén Itzá, and Potrero Nuevo.

The Toltec culture is an archaeological Mesoamerican culture that dominated a state centered in Tula in the early Postclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology (c. 800–1000 CE). Much of what is known about the Toltecs is based on what has been learned about the Aztecs, another Mesoamerican culture that postdated the Toltecs and admired the Toltecs as predecessors. Since so much of what remains on record about the Toltecs may have been tainted by Aztec glorification and mythology in the 14th through 16th centuries, it is difficult to parse out the true history.

The later Aztec culture saw the Toltecs as their intellectual and cultural predecessors, and described Toltec culture emanating from Tōllān [ˈtoːlːaːn] (Nahuatl for Tula) as the epitome of civilization. Indeed, in the Nahuatl language the word “Tōltēcatl” [toːlˈteːkat͡] (singular) or “Tōltēcah” [toːlˈteːkaʔ] (plural) came to take on the meaning “artisan.” The Aztec oral and pictographic tradition also described the history of the Toltec Empire, giving lists of rulers and their exploits.

Among modern scholars it is a matter of debate whether the Aztec narratives of Toltec history should be given credence as descriptions of actual historical events. While all scholars acknowledge that there is a large mythological part of the narrative, some maintain that by using a critical comparative method some level of historicity can be salvaged from the sources. Others maintain that continued analysis of the narratives as sources of actual history is futile and hinders access to actual knowledge of the culture.

Another controversy relating to the Toltecs remains how best to understand the reasons behind the perceived similarities in architecture and iconography between the archaeological site of Tula and the Mayan site of Chichén Itzá. No consensus has yet emerged about the degree or direction of influence between these two sites.

Toltec pyramid at Tula, Hidalgo. Similarities to the pyramid at Chichén Itzá can be seen, including the sloped shape and external steps.


The historicists believe that there is truth within the stories told by the Aztecs. Theories abound about the role the Toltecs actually played in Mesoamerica, from the central Mexican valleys all the way down to certain Maya city-states.

  • Désiré Charnay, the first archaeologist to work at Tula, Hidalgo, defended the historicist views based on his impression of the Toltec capital. He was the first to note similarities in architectural styles between Tula and Chichén Itzá, a famous Maya archeological site. This led him to posit the theory that Chichén Itzá had been violently taken over by a Toltec military force under the leadership of Kukulcan.
  • Following Charnay, the term “Toltec” has since been associated with the influx of certain Central Mexican cultural traits into the Maya sphere of dominance during the late Classic and early Postclassic periods. The Postclassic Maya civilizations of Chichén Itzá, Mayapán, and the Guatemalan highlands have been referred to as “Toltecized” or “Mexicanized” Mayas.
  • Some 20th-century historicist scholars, such as David Carrasco, Miguel León Portilla, Nigel Davies and H. B. Nicholson, argued that the Toltecs were a distinct ethnic group. This school of thought connected the “Toltecs” to the archaeological site of Tula, which was taken to be the Tollan of Aztec myth.
  • Historicists supportive of the ethnic group theory also argue that much of central Mexico was possibly dominated by a “Toltec empire” between the 10th and 12th centuries CE. One possible clue they point to is that the Aztecs referred to several Mexican city-states as Tollan, “Place of Reeds,” such as “Tollan Cholollan.”
  • Archaeologist Laurette Sejourné, followed by the historian Enrique Florescano, argued that the “original” Tollan was probably Teotihuacán.


On the other side of the argument lie those who believe that the Aztec stories are clouded by myth and cannot be taken as accurate accounts of the Toltec civilization. Multiple theories place the Toltec and the site of Tula within a more general framework:

  • Some scholars argue that the Toltec era is best considered the fourth of the five Aztec mythical “suns” or ages. This fourth sun immediately precedes the fifth sun of the Aztec people, which was prophesied to be presided over by Quetzalcoatl.
  • Some researchers argue that the only historically reliable data in the Aztec chronicles are the names of some rulers and possibly some of the conquests ascribed to them.
  • Skeptics argue that the ancient city of Teotihuacán and the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan were much more influential sites for Mesoamerican culture than Tula. However, this skeptical school of thought acknowledges that Tula still contributed to central Mexican cultural heritage in unique ways.
  • Recent scholarship does not frame Tula, Hidalgo, as the capital of the Toltecs as described in the Aztec accounts. Rather, it takes “Toltec” to mean simply an inhabitant of Tula during its apogee. Separating the term “Toltec” from those of the Aztec accounts, it attempts to find archaeological clues to the ethnicity, history, and social organization of the inhabitants of the site of Tula.

Archeology and Clues

While the residents of the site of Tula, Hidalgo, remain a mysterious group, and their ethnic and social dynamics are obscure, they left behind substantial archeological records that modern scholars have attempted to parse through.


Stone carving of Quetzalcoatl. This powerful feathered serpent deity has deep mythological roots in Aztec stories. He also appears regularly in carvings at Tula.

The city of Tula boasts 15-foot-tall warrior statues carved from stone. These same Atlantean figures, as they are called, also appear at the Mayan sites of Chichén Itzá and Potrero Nuevo.


Toltec warrior statues at Tula. These stone statues highlight the artistic style of the city of Tula. They also connect this city with other cultural sites in Mesoamerica.

Tula also boasts intricate carvings of eagles, jaguars, hummingbirds, and butterflies, all of which the Aztec Empire used prolifically. Furthermore, the site of Tula includes two ball courts for the religious rubber ball game that appears in many Mesoamerican civilizations. Along with these distinct relics, the Toltecs also built distinctive pyramids that mirror other sites, such as Chichén Itzá.

Many questions still remain about the inhabitants of this site, including questions about their origin and their demise. This site also raises questions about the flow of influence between multiple Mesoamerican cultures before the rise of the Aztec Empire.