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History : the post-classic
 Page updated on 03.10.2015
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Pre-hispanic Mexico

The Post-Classic

The destruction of the big urban centers by less civilized tribes didn’t lead to the total disappearance of the cultures but, as in the case of the roman conquest of Greece, to a cultural integration of the newcomers. Many secondary centers survived to the destruction and the « Barbarian » groups ended in mixing with the local people and creating new cultural forms that lasted until the Spanish Conquest. This new period, called Post classic, is characterized, among other things, by many oral evidences brought to us by the Spaniards and also by the production of a number of written documents, called Codex, with a lot of historic information.

CODEX : They are hand-made manuscripts, often made from agave fibers or animal skins. The long bands were folded like an accordion; they were exclusively made by the « tlacuilo », a scribe-painter who told the stories with a lot of care and many details, mixing abstract symbols and naturalist images. They represented a lot of human and animal heads and sometimes divinities. Most of the codex had been burned by the Spanish during the sixteenth century. The Spanish tried to convert the Mayas and Aztecs to Christianity. The spared Codex allowed the reconstitution of important information. They are the only documents left from a system of writing-reading specific to the Meso-American cultures.

maya codex



Left picture : maya codex











The Toltecs

view over Tula, antique Capital of the ToltecsLead by their chief Mixcoatl, the Chichimecs came to the Highlands. This Náhuatl groups occupied the Tula Valley and intermixed with the local Otomis. Quetzalcóatl, whose real name was Topiltzin ce-acatl, is the founder of Tula, the Capital of the Toltecs. This city, still badly explored, slightly overlooked the valley. In the center, the administrative and religious settled in a big place surrounded by buildings.

     Right picture : view over Tula, antique Capital of the Toltecs

One of these buildings, the pyramid dedicated to the God Quetzalcóatl - Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, was surmounted with a temple whose roof was held by enormous caryatid statues representing Toltec warriors. Later, a vast hypostyle room (55m by 15m or 180 by 49 feet) was added at the foot of this pyramid. Other elements typical from this period have been discovered in Tula, like the sculptures, known under the name of Chac Mool, representing a personage lying on its back, its upper back raised, its knees bent and holding a tray over the stomach where to place offerings.

See the special chapter about Tula

A little bit of history

According to some historical books, some people pretend that the king Quetzalcóatl disappeared in 999 and other kings, whose names are unknown, would have succeeded him until Huemac, who would have lived until the mid twelfth century. And Tula would have fallen during his reign.
However, the historians differentiate two phases in the decline of Tula. The first one would have taken place at the end of Quetzalcóatl’s reign, after being expelled by the priests of Tezcatlipoca. The survivors would have left strong influences in Yucatán and Guatemala; the second phase would have taken place at the end of Huémac’s reign, after being attacked by another Náhuatl group that settled in Tula, the Nonohualcas- Chichimecs. The survivors fled south and intermixed with the ones who fled one century earlier with Quetzalcóatl.

In Yucatán

Chac Mool in Chichen Itza (Yucatán) The influence of the Toltecs in Yucatán is obvious since 1000AD. The Itzas
(maybe the name given to the Toltecs by the Mayas) settled under the command of Kukulcán, in Chichén Itzá where they built a city that would be a reproduction of Tula. These foreigners built other cities like Mayapàn or settled in old Maya cities, like did the Xiu dynasty in Uxmal. In order to reinforce their power, they formed the League of Mayapán which lasted about two centuries. Chichén ltzá was however the most prosperous city in the area. The pyramid known under the name of “el Castillo” offers, with a stair on each side, a very different form compared to the Maya pyramids. The temple of the warriors, with its snake raised shaped front columns and the hypostyle rooms surrounding the base of the temple is built in a Toltec style as well as the ball court with a ring (tlaxtli). The column, introduced in the architecture of Yucatán, has been adopted by the Mayas.

     Right picture : Chac Mool in Chichen Itza (Yucatán)

The Chac Mool has been reproduced many times on the site. For dynasty reasons, the league of Mayapán was destroyed in 1440 by the Xius and their allied and the big cities were abandoned. The Itzas found refuge in Tayasal, in the Petén of Guatemala, where they resisted the Spanish troops until 1697; The Xius built their modest houses in Mani and the Cocoms of Mayapán took place in Tibolon. Only the sites of the Caribbean Coast, occupied by businessmen, survived until the Spanish Conquest.

representation of Toltecs warriorsThe Mexican influence of Teotihuacán could be noticed on the Highlands of Guatemala, in Kaminaljuyu, where other Náhuatl groups came, maybe from Tula, since the tenth century. They formed small warrior kingdoms like the kingdom of Quichés whose Capital was Utatlan, or the kingdom of Cakchiquels in Iximché and the kingdom of Tzutuhils. These kingdoms were always fighting and were quickly dominated by the Spaniards. The Quichés left us one of the most important books of this time about the Mayas : The Popol Vuh « the book of advice ».

Left picture : representation of Toltecs warriors (source : Presidency of Mexico)

The Quetzalcóatl

The famous “fathered snake”, sorcerer, Toltec-Chichimec king, messiah, enemy of human sacrifices, has later become a God. It reigned over Tula during the tenth century. His neighbor and enemy, the king Tezcatlipoca, from divine origin himself, evicted him from the throne and kingdom. Before disappearing towards East, Quetzalcóatl promised his followers that he would return with the wind of West, when « the era of years will be in my favor ».
This era or cycle of the old calendar means fifty-two years. When Cortés, as a Caucasian, appeared at the beginning of an Aztec cycle, Moctezuma had no doubt : This guy was a reincarnation of Quetzalcóatl.

The ball game

the famous Fathered snake, Quetzacóatl The ball game, called « Pok-ta-pok » by the Toltec-Mayas, is closely related to the rite with a cosmic dimension. It is a game involving 2 teams of seven. The players had to send a hard rubber ball from one camp to the other one keeping it from touching the ground. They were not allowed to use hands and they had to propel the ball with hips or forearms; they could also score when hitting the ball into narrow mounted rings. The hardness and weight of the ball made it difficult to pass the ball through the ring. More than a sport, it was a cosmic fight. From one camp to another one, the ball may have symbolized the movement of sun and stars. They thought that the Gods picked the winners of the game like they picked the winners of the wars. The losers were sacrificed, following the mythical origins of the Maya civilization and the resurrection of Maize God.

     Right picture : the famous Fathered snake, Quetzacóatl

See special chapter about Chichén Itzá and Mayapán

The Mixtecs

Mixtec codexAfter the decline of Monte Albán, the relations with the outside seemed to be re-established. Foreign products went again around the valley. Around 1,000 AD, the influence of the Mixtec neighbors started to be noticed and grew with the time. This influence modified none of the customs of the Zapotec people but had a big impact on the customs of the aristocracy. The architecture kept the Zapotec features from the previous eras; only the adornment improved as it can be seen in the palaces of Mitlá, its walls covered with geometric stonework mosaics.

Left picture: Mixtec codex

However, this Mixtec influence ended up in merging in the Zapotec substrate and the Mixtec language disappeared from the Central valleys. The renown Mixtec art came from the objects discovered in the Tomb 7 of Monte Albán and in Zaachila. Coming from South America, the goldsmith’s trade experienced a wonderful renewal : most of the golden objects sent to Europe by the Conquistadors came from there. Cortés was the one who stopped the evolution of this civilization in 1520.

See special chapter about Mitlá and Zaachila

The Aztecs

Coming from the mythical Aztlan, the Aztecs traveled during two centuries before settling in the valley of Mexico where, according to the prophecies, an eagle devouring a snake on a cactus would have indicated the place of their city, called Tenochtitlán, and founded in 1325. Vassals of the Kings of Azcapotzalco, the sons of Huitzilopochtli, the God of war, conquered their independence under Itzcoatl’s reign and consolidated their colonialist expansion under Moctezuma. At the same time, the emperors embellished their city with sumptuous temples and palaces. The conquests reached the coasts of the Gulf and Pacific until Guatemala. The prosperity and splendor of the city generated the admiration of the Spanish, who took possession of it on August, 13th, 1521. During his expedition in Honduras, Cortés had Cuauhtemoc killed. He was the last Aztec emperor.

      Below picture : Tenochitlán with its 200 000 inhabitants (source: Presidency of Mexico)

Tenochitlán with its 200 000 inhabitants

Log on to the site www.mexica.net to find more information on the different peoples of Mexico as well as a dictionary and lessons of Náhuatl.

In spite of the massive destructions perpetrated by the Spanish, there are enough pieces of sculpture to demonstrate the mastery of the Aztec artisans.


Aztec calendar in the 
			   in Mexico City


The Sun Stone called the AZTEC CALENDAR is one example.

It was discovered late eighteenth century while building the cathedral of Mexico City. It was on the double pyramid of Tenochtitlán , which is dedicated not only to Tlacoc and Huitzilopotchli, gods of rain and war, but also gods of new Man and flower war. This circular carved stone is 3 feet thick, 12 feet in diameter and weights 25 tons. The stone is covered with hieroglyphs summarizing the collection of the cosmological and chronological conceptions of the previous Mexicans. The Aztecs revived the art of stone masks, often with hard stones inset like in the Classic age of Teotihuacán. This stone is actually on display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

     Right picture : Aztec calendar in the Museum of anthropology in Mexico City


Ten minutes of video about the life of Aztecs




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