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The Americas

Central American Native Kingdoms


Culhuacan (Toltecs / Aztecs) (Mesoamerica)

The Aztec people were formed of several ethnic groups which occupied central Mexico. Predominantly this included groups which spoke the Nahuatl language and it was they who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries AD.

The name itself, 'aztec', means 'people from Aztlan', a mythological location for the region's Nahuatl-speaking culture, but it was this which was later adopted to define the Mexica people.

From the thirteenth century, the Valley of Mexico was at the heart of Aztec civilisation, and it was here that the powerful city of Tenochtitlan was constructed upon raised islets in Lake Texcoco. The city of Culhuacan (or Culhuacán) was traditionally founded by the Toltecs, who held a large empire in Mexico until it collapsed at the end of the twelfth century.

When the capital city of Teotihuacan was sacked and partially destroyed around AD 600, refugees headed towards Late Texcoco where they founded this city as their new home, However, the resulting power vacuum probably allowed the Aztec to migrate into the region, although Culhuacan itself managed to maintain its status despite the loss of the Toltec empire. Most of the information on Aztec rulers which is available today was gathered together by a series of Spanish historians.

Aztec Hero

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Codex Chimalpahin Vol 1: Society and Politics in Mexico Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco, Texcoco, Culhuacan, and Other Nahua Altepetl in Central Mexico, concerning the writings of seventeenth century Nahua historian Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuanitzin, otherwise known as Don Domingo Francisco de Antón Muñón, (Eds) Arthur J O Anderson, Susan Schroeder, & Wayne Ruwet (1997), from An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl, Frances E Karttunen, and from External Links: Aztec History, and SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and The political collapse of Chichén Itzá in climatic and cultural context (Science Direct).)

c.550 - 800s

The great Toltec city of Teotihuacan is sacked and its grand buildings burned around this time. Somewhat reduced in circumstances, the city may survive into the eighth century AD during a period of regional decline, but refugees find a new home on the southern shore of Lake Texcoco.

Map of Central America c.AD 950
By the middle of the tenth century AD the Toltecs were swiftly creating an empire centred around their capital at Tula, although Toltec influence spread a great deal further than their military might (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The Toltecs have been claimed (largely by Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl) as being one of the various peoples who had lived at Teotihuacan, with a legendary chief named Huémac leading them southwards to a new settlement.

However, it is much more likely that they migrate into the region from the deserts of the north-west at some point in the ninth or early tenth centuries and merely graft on their links to Teotihuacan as a way of proving an inheritance of that former glory.

Under the leadership of a chieftain named Ce Técpatl Mixcoatl, the settlement of Culhuacan is founded as the first city of the Toltecs following their recent migratory arrival into the region.

? - 929

Ce Técpatl Mixcoatl

Founder chieftain of Toltec Culhuacan.

929 - 1175

Under the honorary title of Mixcoatl (meaning 'Cloud Serpent', the Toltec way of categorising the sight of the Milky Way in the heavens), Ce Técpatl is claimed as the Toltec chief who leads his people from the deserts of the north-west into the Valley of Mexico where they found their first city - Culhuacan.

The city remains a Toltec stronghold for the duration of Toltec greatness, although if local rulers are appointed following the shift of the Toltec capital to Tula around 950, none of their names are known. Following his death, Mixcoatl is elevated to godhood, a process which only increases under later generations.

In some traditions he is claimed as the son of the primordial creator gods, Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl; in others, he is the son of the earth goddess, Itzpapalotl (meaning 'Obsidian Butterfly'), while his wife is Coatlicue ('Serpent Skirt'), another earth-fertility goddess. Mixcoatl is considered to be the father of the Centzon Huitznahua, the four hundred sons who represent the southern stars.

The lost city of El Tajin
The city of El Tajin, on a site which has been occupied to some extent since 6500 BC, reached its height during the Toltec period of greatness, appearing pretty much as this illustration shows before a sudden collapse overtook it, after which it was abandoned to the jungle until 1785

929 - ?


First of an unknown series of successors to Mixcoatl.


Toltec civilisation flourishes as an empire is born from the city state of Tula, which conquers much of the Mexican region. The settlement of Culhuacan is moved to a fresh site named Tollantzingo. With Tula at the height of its powers at this time, it can easily spare settlers to help populate the new Culhuacan. Other neighbouring sites are also settled and flourish, including that of Itztapalapan.


The Toltec empire undergoes a sudden and violent collapse, possibly due to a long period of drought which induces large population movements, most notably by Chichimec groups, bringing disruption to the region. Researchers have noticed a slump in construction at numerous sites across the northern territory of the Mayans in the Yucatan which takes place against a backdrop of severe drought.

However, the drought here is far more severe than usual - the worst drought that the region has seen for fully two thousand years - a so-called megadrought.

It is entirely possible that the more northerly regions of Mesoamerica are similarly affected, triggering migrations which could include the Chichimec, Mixtec, and early Aztecs, and causing the sudden crash of an establishing farming-based society like that of the Toltecs.

Map of Aztec cities around Lake Texcoco AD 1519
This map shows the principle Aztec cities at the height of their power, but it also includes other cities such as Azcapotzalco which was largely a Tepanec stronghold by this time (click or tap on map to view full sized)

The Toltec capital, Tula (which falls into the hands of 'barbarians' in 1224), is destroyed by fighting, with some buildings being fired and others being deliberately demolished, possibly over an extended period of time.

Certainly there is evidence to show that the city's population shrinks, with outlying areas being abandoned in favour of a reduced existence at the city's centre. Refugees settle in some of the towns of the southern Valley of Mexico. The city of Culhuacan survives the collapse, with its leaders claiming descent from the Toltec kings.

In the thirteenth century, as part of a general invasion into the Valley of Mexico by further Nahuatl-speaking northern peoples, tribes begin to arrive on the central plateau.

Keen to intermarry into surviving Toltec royalty and nobility and claim the honour of Toltec descent, four of these peoples influence the rise of the Aztec empire, the Chichimecs, the Tepanecs, the Acolhua, and the Mexica. A direct descendant of the Toltecs is Atotoztli, fourteenth century ruler of Culhuacan.

c.1250 - 1300

Various tribes have been migrating towards the prosperous and flourishing Valley of Mexico. One of them is that of the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica, and they are initially allowed to settle within the territory of Culhuacan.

Although they are largely forced to be subservient thanks to their raids on other settlements for women, they generally live in peace. In time they are forced to found their own settlement (around 1325), which becomes the city of Tenochtitlan.

Artist's recreation of Tenochtitlan
This is an artist's impression of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan at the height of the glory and power of the Aztec empire

1283 - 1414

Tepanec expands, taking Cuauhnahuac, Cuitlahuac, Culhuacan, and many other cities besides. However, while the Tepanec cities of Azcapotzalco and Tepanec originally seem to be part of a unified state, by the mid-fourteenth century at the latest they appear to become independent of one another for approximately a century, possibly following the reign of Acolnahuacatl.

fl 1299


Son of Xihuitltemoc? Native ruler.


Cocoxtli aids the Azcapotzalco Tepanecs, the Xochimilca, and other cities in expelling the Mexica from Chapultepec. Instead, the Mexica are allowed to settle in the barren land of Tizapan, which lies to the south-west of Chapultepec, making them vassals of Culhuacan. The Mexica become assimilated into Culhuacan's culture and provide mercenaries for the city's wars.

early 1300s


Relationship to Cocoxtli unclear.


Although they are largely forced to be subservient thanks to their raids on other settlements for women, the Mexica generally live in peace. However,Achitometl finds reason to expel them and they find their way to a small island in Lake Texcoco, where they found Tenochtitlan.

Aztec god of the air Quetzalcoatl
Quetzalcoatl, god of the air, was predicted to arrive in 1519, heralding the beginning of the Nine Hells. Coincidentally, the Spanish seemed to fit the bill for this entirely

fl c.1324


Seemingly not the same as circa 1372.

fl c.1372


Claimed as direct descendant of the Toltecs.


Atotoztli is an Aztec who had married a local woman from Culhuacan. His son, Acamapichtli, is offered the throne of Tenochtitlan in an attempt to secure the city's position. However, during his reign, Tenochtitlan falls under the suzerainty of Azcapotzalco, the major regional power at the time. The city still thrives, building the earliest level of the Great Pyramid (Temple II).

c.1372 - 1391


Son. Ruler of Tenochtitlan.


Tezozomoctli of Azcapotzalco attacks Culhuacan with a large body of troops, mostly Mexica, and subjugates the city. From this point on it is incorporated within the administration of Azcapotzalco. At some point the city must regain a semblance of independence, as it has to be attacked again in 1428.

Aztec human sacrifice
This rather gruesome illustration shows a human sacrifice in action, a ritual which was practised by many of the region's natives and which reached its height during the apogee of the Aztec empire


The kings of Tenochtitlan are crowned in accompaniment with the subjugated Tetzcoco and the ruler of Tlacopan, members of the Triple Alliance which forms the Aztec empire. As primary leader of the alliance, Itzcoatl lays the foundations for the Aztec empire with victories over Tepanec and its subject cities of Coyoacan and Azcapotzalco (1428), Xochimilco (1430), Mixquic (1432), and Cuitlahuac (1433).

He also defeats Culhuacan, and Tezompa, securing agricultural resources and cementing the Triple Alliance's control of the southern half of the Valley of Mexico. Other cities have either already joined the alliance through marriage - including Itztapalapan - or treaty, or they now quickly do so.

As an early member of the alliance, governance of Itztapalapan is passed more diplomatically to the new Aztec social elite. It is formed into a union of four city states which also includes Culhuacan, Huitzilopochco, and Mexicaltzingo, and which is governed more remotely by Tenochtitlan. Later in his reign, Itzcoatl places his son, Huehua Cuitlahuatzin in command of Itztapalapan and in return the city has no taxes to pay.

1520 - 1521

Cuitalahuac of Tenochtitlan leads his people to drive the Spanish out of the city on 30 June 1520. He is joined by other Aztec leaders in Tenochtitlan. However, some Aztec-dominated cities are expressing anti-Aztec sentiments, demonstrating the fact that the empire is losing control of its subjects in the chaos of the war.

Hernan Cortes
Hernan Cortes parades before the defeated Aztecs following the final fall of the native empire and the beginnings of Spanish conquest of further regions of Central America

Unfortunately, Cuitalahuac is claimed by smallpox, introduced by the Spanish into the Americas. Between thirty to forty per cent of the population is killed alongside him, drastically weakening the Aztec defensive efforts and making their final stand seem all the more heroic.

Tenochtitlan is defeated by Spain on 13 August 1521, and is drawn into Spanish Colonies to be administered from Mexico City along with its territories which include Culhuacan. This defeat marks the end of Aztec civilisation.

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