The Toltecs: Until the Fall of Tula
by Nigel Davies
Published by University of Oklahoma Press 1977
Civilization of the American Indian Series Volume 144
This was another rescue book I bought from Wahrenbrock Book House- it's a handsome first edition with a minimalist cover aesthetic that reminds me of a good record jacket. I like to look at books from a design perspective, in much the same way I consider the physical media that contains popular music.
The Toltecs is also Volume 144 in the excellent Civilization of the American Indian Series published by the University of Oklahoma Press. From what I can tell, it's the only series of value the University of Oklahoma Press releases, but it is a doozy. That series is still going and they are up to volume 265 according to their on-line catalog.
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they encountered a diverse linguistic and cultural environment. Driven by their own cultural peculiarities, they gravitated towards a center of power, the Aztec empire. After the Aztec empire was conquered by the Spanish, they inherited a perspective that was strongly shaped by the Aztec's themselves. For the first few centuries of the Conquest, little attention was paid in the ways that the Aztecs themselves were shapers of their historic past and in fact great attempts were made to eradicate pre-Aztec writings by the Aztecs themselves, BEFORE the Spanish arrived.
So when the Spanish showed up, the Aztecs told them that they traced their heritage to the Toltec Empire, but that the Toltec had vanished from the scene several hundred years prior. It was kind of the same conversation you would have if you asked a classical Roman about Troy or a medieval English aristocrat about King Arthur and his nights of the Round Table. Mythic overlay aside, the Toltecs were real in the sense that a Toltec empire existed to the north and east of the Aztec empire from about 900 to 1200 AD. The Empire ended with a poly-ethnic diaspora which sent residents in multiple directions.
The Aztec account of the Toltec was wrapped up in their main god Quetzalcoatl. In Aztec times he was the main boss god. In Toltec times he had reportedly been a man, an actual leader of the Toltecs. That was the idea, at any rate. In the centuries after the conquest, some written sources were saved for future historians, additionally western disciplines of archeology and linguistics added to the total sum of knowledge on the area.
However, the written sources are compromised by the Aztec system of recording dates, where a 52 year cycle was repeated without any century reference (so you can't tell if something happened in 1869 or 1969.) The written sources are further compromised by the trauma of the conquest, so that scribes were sometimes putting together occurrences that had happened hundreds of years apart because they happened on the same year of the 52 year counting cycle. Also, different communities started their 52 year cycles on different years of the month, so that it might be year 1 for community A and year 2 for community B.
In fact, much of The Toltecs consists of this kind of explanation about why it is so hard to know anything about the Toltecs, and I think it gets in the way of what is otherwise an interesting story. When Davies allows himself to speculate about what he thinks might of went down, it's some interesting information. Even writing in 1977, Davies was quite on top of the most recent advances in the theory of archeology, throwing in easy references to the seminal work of philologist/archeologist Gordon Childe. Childe was one of the first people to attempt to draw natural history disciplines together with social history disciplines- it's an approach that has to underlie the intelligent study of any pre or semi-historic civilization.
Ultimately, the Toltecs are revealed as a crucial bridge between the classical Teotihuacan culture and the Aztecs that the Spanish encountered. They were a poly-ethnic moderately sized empire centered on the the North East interior of the Aztec region centered on the valley of Mexico. The main ethnic constituents were Nonalcas, participants in the Classical era civilization who had migrated from the Tabasco region- they likely brought books, legends and religion. In Tula, the capital city of the Toltec empire, they were joined by the Chichimecs, a nomadic war-like people of less advanced civilization who came from the northern desert wastes of present day Mexico. It's not hard to imagine that the Chichimecs were the muscle and the Nonalcas were the brains. The tales of the post-collapse diaspora, seem to describe a combination of Ethnic and Caste conflict between the Nonalca ethnicity priest caste and the Chichimec warrior caste. Davies effectively illustrates this hypothesis by comparative reference to the Indo-european split that is most traditionally described by the formula of "raj/brahman" in classical Sanskrit.
During the Toltec Empire, the most sophisticated religious/cultural ideas of the Nonalcas were effectively transmitted to the Chichimecs, lasting well after the collapse of the Empire itself. In this way they were likely a cultural bridge between the Classic Period and the Late Post Classic Period. The reader can make out the rough forms of the transition from a gentler, less human-sacrifcey Classic period, to an early Post Classic Period where the need for protection leads to the introduction of a more "muscular" type of religion/society, followed by the late Post Classic Period where the Warrior caste was firmly in control and shaping the earlier religious/cultural traditions to their own needs.
It's important to recognize that the Aztecs were much more like a Middle Eastern Empire of the 2000 BC variety then a Classical era Roman Empire. Mesoamerican Civilizations could support large populations through their use of irrigation and agricultural, but transmitting power across long distances was difficult. Of course, cultural influences were more easily transmitted, but it is simply unclear how deep that sort of adoption went.