Sunday, May 27, 2012

Mesoamerican Toltecs-Fact or Fiction?

Mesoamerican Theorists as well as Mesoamericanists in general, have placed a great deal of emphasis on the writings of Fernando de Alva Cortes Ixtlilxochitl, and the fifteen nobles who supposedly wrote The Lords of Totonicapan.

Some claim the original settlers of Mesoamerica were the Olmecas, dating them from about 1200 B.C. until about 200 A.D., and were the mother tribe to all Mexican Indians and Mexico's first established culture, as well as the Mayan. It is claimed that this culture was particularly mysterious, since little is known about its origin, political structure, or reason for their appearance or disappearance. In addition, there followed the Teotihuacan, of which Quetzalcoatl is supposed to have been; then the Maya, also from around 1200 B.C. to 1400 A.D.; the Toltecas, 950 A.D. to 1300 A.D., having built one of Mexico's most impressive cities--Tula, later defeating the Maya in battle; and finally, the Aztecas, 1345 A.D. to 1521 A.D., when the Spanish arrived.

Among modern scholars, however, it is a matter of debate whether the Aztec narratives of Toltec history should be given any 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, whereas others maintain that continued analysis of the narratives as sources of actual history is futile and hinders access to actual knowledge of the culture of Tula, Hidalgo.

Other controversy relating to the Toltecs include how best to understand reasons behind the perceived similarities in architecture and iconography between the archaeological site of Tula and the Maya site of Chichen Itza, though no factual consensus has emerged about the degree or direction of influence between the two sites.

Left: Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico; Right: Tula, Hidalgo, Central Mexico

In fact, in recent decades, the historicist position has fallen out of favor for a more critical and interpretive approach to the historicity of the Aztec mythical accounts based on the original approach of Daniel Brinton. This approach applies a different understanding of the word Toltec to the interpretation of the Aztec sources, interpreting it as largely a mythical and philosophical construct by either the Aztecs or Mesoamericans generally that served to symbolize the might and sophistication of the several different civilizations during the Mesoamerican Postclassic period.

Many historicists such as H. H. Nicholson and Nigel Davies were fully aware that the Aztec Chronicles were a mixture of mythical and historical accounts, which led them to try to separate the two by applying a comparative approach to the varying Aztec narratives, such as between the deity Quetzalcoatl and a Toltec ruler often referred to as Topiltin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl.

Actually, there are three deities that are sometimes mixed up within the Aztec Chronicles: Left: Xochipilli, who Quetzalcoatl sometimes becomes; Center: Quetzalcoatl; Right: Xochiquetzal

This historicist view was first challenged by the Yale graduate, Daniel Brinton, who was the president of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia, of the American Folklore Society, the American Philosophical Society, and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He argued that the Toltecs as described in the Aztec sources were merely one of several Nahuatl-speaking city states in the post classic period, and not a particularly influential one at that. He attributed the Aztec view of the Toltecs to the "tendency of the human mind to glorify the good old days."

Scholars such as Michel Graulich (researcher in art history and religions of the pre-Colombian America and especially of Mesoamerica) and Susan D. Gillespie (anthropologist, archaeologist, and ethnologist) maintain that the difficulties in salvaging actual historic data from the Aztec accounts of Toltec history are too great to overcome. This causes Graulich and gillespie to suggest that the general Aztec cyclical view of time, where events repeated themselves at the end and beginning of cycles or eras was being inscribed into the historical record by the Aztecs, making it futile to attempt to distinguish between an historical Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, a mythologized figure of historical traditions said to be a 10th century ruler whose name first appeared in 16th century writings, and a Quetzalcoatl deity. This causes Graulich to consider that the only possible historical data in the Aztec chronicles are the names of some rulers and possibly some of the conquests ascribed to them.

Further, more among the Nahuan peoples the word Tolteca was synonymous with artist, artisan or wise man, and toltecayotl. Totltecness meant art, cultured and civilization and urbanism--and was seen as the opposite of Chichimecayotl--Chichimecness which symbolized the savage, nomadic state of peoples who had not yet become urbanized. This interpretation argues that any large urban center in Mesoamerica could be referred to as Tollan and its inhabitants as Toltects--and that it was common practice among ruling lineages in Postclassic Mesoamerica to strengthen claims to power by claiming Toltec ancestry.

Mesoamerican migration accounts often state that Tollan was ruled by Quetzalcoatl (or Kikulkan in Yucatec and O'ug'umatz in K'iche'), a godlike mythical figure who was later sent into exile from Tollan and went on to found a new city elsewhere in Mesoamerica. Claims of Toltec ancestry and a ruling dynasty founded by Quetzalcoatl have been made by such diverse civilizations as the Aztec, the Quiche, and the Itza' Mayans.

Quetzalcoatl depicted in various forms in different ancient writings: Top LtoR: Telleriano-Remensis Codex, Magliabechiano Codex; Bottom LtoR: Borgia Codex, Borbonicus Codex

While the skeptical school of thought does not deny that cultural traits of a seemingly central Mexican origin have diffused into a larger area of Mesoamerica, it tends to ascribe this to the dominance of Teotihuacan in the Classic period and the general diffusion of cultural traits within the region. Recent scholarship. then, does not see Tula, Hidalgo, as the capital of the Toltecs of the Aztec accounts, but rather takes "Toltec" to mean simply an inhabitant of Tula during its apogee. Yet, separating the term "Toltec" from those of the Aztec accounts, in attempts to find archaeological clues to the ethnicity, history and social organization of the inhabitant of Tula, leads to other problems.

The point of all this is simple. If the people involved in establishing early Mexican and Mayan histories feel most of what has been written is mythical and cannot even agree on the form or grouping of a single classification--Toltecas--of only two centuries before the Spaniards arrived, then what confidence can we place in overall Mesoamerican historicity proclaimed by these very historians and scientist of a history dating one or two thousand years ago? Yet, Book of Mormon Mesoamerican Theorists talk about Mesoamerican history as though it is completely understood and agreed upon even as far back as 1200 B.C. and earlier with the Olmec people, ignoring the many others, who are not trying to prove the location of the Land of Promise, who have written very differently about it.

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