Post-Classic period

The collapse of the Maya in southern Mexico was matched by the spectacular rise of new powers from the north, first among which were the Toltecs. The cultural standards reached by the Maya and the Olmecs in the Classic were never to be surpassed in this new era, from AD 900 to 1519. Instead, a phase of military aggression and authoritarianism was beginning, which would reach its own tumultuous peak with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.


The peoples of the northeast coastal fringe of Mesoamerica, to the north of Veracruz and eastern San Luis Potosí, blossomed later than neighbouring cultures to the south and west, but they left a significant impression nevertheless. Originating from the Gulf Coast region to the north of the city of Veracruz, the Huasteca people were probably closely related to the earliest Mayas during the pre-Classic period, but after about 1500 BC, their paths separated. The Huastecs produced some fine ceramics and painted murals, and built both large and small ceremonial centres (including Tamuin, near San Luis Potosí).

The most important site in the Veracruz area, however, was El Tajín, a large ceremonial centre, some 8 km southwest of Papantla, built during the early Classic period. The dominant building at El Tajín is the Pyramid of the Niches which, for its elaborate decoration and numerous niches (365 in total), ranks as one of the finest pieces of pre-Columbian architecture in all Mesoamerica. The construction of El Tajín reached its peak in the late Classic period, and included massive stone temples and at least 11 impressive ball courts (this was one of the founding regions of the cult 'sport').

The Huastecs later came into contact with the Aztecs, but despite some of their southern region falling to Aztec control, they mostly retained their own independence. Late successors to the Huastecs in the Veracruz region were the Totonacs, who arrived after the abandonment of El Tajín, in the 13th century, and who built their centres in Remojadas and El Zapotal.


The Toltecs were originally a mixture of tribes dominated by Nahua-speaking Toltec-Chichimecas, from western Mexico, combined with the Nonoalca people from the Puebla and Gulf Coast regions. These early descendants had peacefully farmed the fringes of western and northern Mexico since ancient times, but by the post-Classic era they had been driven south by drought and starvation.

After AD 900 the Toltecs formed their capital, Tula (aka Tollan), in the state of Hidalgo, about 80 km northwest of Mexico City, under the leadership of a king named Topiltzin. Their characteristic feature was professional warmongering, glorifying militarism in mass rituals such as bloodletting, animal and human sacrifice, and the gruesome construction of tzompantli (racks of skulls), as a public display of their victims' heads.

Tula was the centre of the Toltec culture, which rose to dominate the whole of central Mexico, in northern and western Mexico almost as far as the border with New Mexico, and south through the Yucatán Peninsula, and even into parts of the Guatemalan highlands.

Topiltzin was driven out of Tula around AD 987, following an internal conflict. He invaded and conquered Chichén Itzá, followed by the rest of the Yucatán Mayan sites, eventually creating an alternative domain to the one he had lost at Tula. Toltec-style architecture was adopted in Chichén Itzá, but there is evidence of Toltec-Maya influence in the Yucatán long before the arrival of Topiltzin.

The Toltecs plunged into decline in the second half of the 12th century. Severe droughts provoked feuds between factions of the original Toltec-Chichimeca and Nonoalca tribes. The last Toltec ruler, Huemac, moved the capital to Chapultepec (in the west of Mexico City), but failing to pacify the uprisings, he committed suicide. Some of the Toltec-Chichimecas stayed on at Tula for a few years, but others drifted south, even as far as Guatemala, where they clung to their memories of Tula's days of glory.

Independent states

Post-Classic Mexico also saw the continuation of various independent states, who had resisted overthrow by the imperial civilizations, and who subsequently managed to hold back the Aztecs. Foremost among these states were the Mixtecs, from the Oaxaca region in southwest Mexico, who united with the neighbouring Zapotecs to repel the invading Aztecs. They were a highly artistic people, renown as the finest craftsmen of gold artefacts and turquoise mosaics ever seen in Mexico, much of whose work has been uncovered in the earlier Zapotec site of Monte Albán.

The Tarascans, centred around Lake Pátzcuaro in western Mexico, were another redoubtable people who resisted the Aztecs, despite being eventually surrounded by their territory on all sides. They were highly accomplished artisans, in precious metals and stones and, with the finely cut stone pyramids of their capital, Tzintzuntzan, the Tarascans also showed their considerable skills as architects.


The Aztec people were Nahuatl-speakers from the northwest of Mexico, from where they migrated to the Valley of Mexico during the 12th and 13th centuries AD. Here they conquered the Chichimeca people, who were living in relative peace, following the violent collapse of the Toltec Empire.

The Aztecs were first and foremost a supremely efficient military force, rapidly expanding their territory, extracting tribute and victims for human sacrifice as they went. They were also highly adept at adopting the artistic skills and styles of their conquered foes and produced some fine works of art and architecture.

In 1344-45, they built their capital, Tenochtitlán, on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. The scale of this magnificent city, which at the time of the Conquest may have been occupied by as many as 300,000 inhabitants, can be appreciated by the comparison with the contemporary London of King Henry VIII, which was only one-fifth the size.

By the late 1400s the Aztecs found themselves the most powerful state in the whole country. Not only that, but their ruler, Tlacaecel, rewrote the history books to declare the Aztecs as the chosen race, who would keep the sun moving through the sky, maintaining the Toltec mythology.

Following this declaration of divine destiny, the Aztecs began a wave of military conquests that expanded their borders across most of central Mexico and south as far as Guatemala, creating an empire to equal or surpass that of the Toltecs themselves.

The Aztec leader who presided over the boom period of their empire was Ahuitzotl (1486-1502), a dynamic and resourceful man. His successor was Motecuhzoma Xocoytozin (1502-1520). Motecuhzoma had the misfortune to come to power at the momentous time when the Spanish conquistadors arrived on Mexican soil. The dramatic ease with which these invaders overthrew the mighty Aztec Empire was partly explained by the mythical interpretations made of these bearded white-skinned foreigners. According to Toltec legends, the cult figure Quezalocoatl would return from the east and destroy the Mexicans, a theory which the Spanish were quick to propagate to help them win over their new subjects.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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