Ancient Mysteries

The Totonacs: A Forgotten Civilization

In July of 1519 Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men marched into the city of Cempoala the impressive capital of the kingdom of Totonacapan on the gulf coast of what is now the Mexican state of Veracruz.  It was the first time the Spaniards had seen a pyramid and it was the first time the indigenous people of this kingdom – the Totonacs – had ever seen Europeans.  Before they reached the city, Cortés and his men were received by 20 Totonac dignitaries who brought word to the conquistadors that they would be welcome guests of their king, Xicomecoatl.  On their approach to the city, from a distance the foreigners noted that the monumental architecture of Cempoala “shone like silver” owing to the white lime covering most of the larger structures.  The Spanish made it to the king’s palace and were greeted by the generous ruler who gave them gifts of gold and allowed them unfettered access to all parts of the city.  In his diary, one of Cortés’ men described Xicomecoatl as “The Fat Chief” as he weighed well over 300 pounds and had a hard time walking.  The conquistadors marveled at the Totonac capital city of Cempoala with its lush gardens, grand public works and overall feeling of plenty.  “The Fat Chief” took Cortés into his confidence and told him that although the city’s 30,000 inhabitants were well provided for, a dark cloud hung over his kingdom.  For more than 50 years the Kingdom of Totonacapan had been under various degrees of domination by the Aztec Empire, whose heart was located in the highlands over the mountains and to the west.  While touring Cempoala, King Xicomecoatl pointed to some very impressive buildings in his capital.   These buildings were relatively new, with high walls and well-fortified.  The Totonac king told Cortés that the Aztecs built these buildings in his city as centers for the tribute collectors and imperial bureaucrats who made sure the Totonacs were paying their proper taxes to the Aztec Empire.  The king also explained that parts of his kingdom were under direct military rule from the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.  This slow takeover of the Totonac kingdom began with trade agreements in the time of his grandfather and had gotten progressively worse over the decades, King Xicomecoatl told Cortés.  Would this fair-skinned visitor and his men be able to help him?  The ambitious Spaniard did not have to think long about assisting the Totonacs provided they helped him march on the Aztec capital.  A few days later, in the Totonac city of Quiahuiztlán, Cortés along with King Xicomecoatl met with 30 high-level Totonacs to hash out a deal.  The Spanish had secured their first indigenous alliance in Mexico and after the meeting the march on the Aztec capital began, including the Spanish along with 1,300 Totonacs.  What ensued was one of the most important events in human history.

The average person has heard of the Aztecs and the Maya and might have heard of the Olmec and Toltec civilizations, but the Totonacs seem to be forgotten or ignored by many who have a mild curiosity about ancient Mexico.  Scholars and archaeologists continue to try to understand the ancient world of the Totonacs while modern anthropologists are racing to understand the contemporary Totonac people who number about 300,000 and live mostly in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Puebla.  To start with, no one is certain where the name “Totonac” came from.  Some believe the name originates in the language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, and may mean “man from the hot earth.”  Other scholars think that the word “Totonac” comes from one of the Totonac dialects and is made of two words, tu’tu, meaning “three,” and nacu, meaning “heart.”  So, what would tu’tu nacu, “Three Heart,” mean exactly?  Two scholars in the 1950s named Kelly and Palerm theorized that the “three heart” reference has to do with the three major centers of Totonac civilization.  This has been the often-repeated explanation, but one of the three centers on the list is El Tajín, which may or may not have been occupied by the Totonac.  For more information about the archaeological site of El Tajín, please see Mexico Unexplained episode 138:  The “three hearts” may refer to three mounds found at the Totonac capital of Cempoala.  Archaeologists are not in agreement as to what these mounds mean, but they may have some sort of astronomical or spiritual significance.

The origins of the Totonacs are equally mysterious.  The Totonac family of languages is often broken down into 4 or 9 subdivisions and some languages in this family are barely intelligible to speakers of another.  The language family is considered to be what is called a language isolate in that it is not related to any other language on earth.  So, it is difficult to connect the Totonac people to any of their neighbors or with any other people in Mesoamerica.  In their own origin stories, the Totonac believe that they built the ancient city of Teotihuacán, the huge prehistoric metropolis in the northeastern part of the Valley of Mexico.  For more information about this famous lost city, please see Mexico Unexplained episode number 45:  While there is no way of verifying that claim, scholars generally believe that the Totonac originally came from somewhere in central Mexico.  They may have been pushed out of the highlands and into what is now referred to the lands encompassing the Kingdom of Totonacapan sometime in the 12th Century about the time of the Toltec Civilization’s domination of central Mexico.  Archaeologists believe that the Totonac Kingdom’s capital city of Cempoala had already had human habitation for a thousand years before the Totonacs arrived.  The capital dates to the early years AD and may have been built by the much earlier Olmec civilization.  After the Totonacs established themselves in the highlands of the modern-day Mexican state of Puebla and throughout the modern state of Veracruz, they built impressive cities and a complex Totonac culture flourished.  Totonac trade networks extended beyond central Mexico and into far-flung places like the jungles of Central America and the deserts of what is now the American Southwest.  Aqueducts and complex irrigation systems brought fresh water to the Totonac cities to quench the thirst of the citizenry and to aid in the development of lush public parks and gardens.  The water delivery system was also responsible for the Totonac kingdom’s agricultural abundance.  In the 1450s when famine gripped most of the heartland of the Aztec Empire, Totonacapan was overflowing in fruits and vegetables, specifically their staple crop, maize.  The situation in the Aztec homeland was so desperate that many Aztecs sold their women and children to the Totonacs as slaves just to get food.  A few decades after the famine the Aztecs had a more permanent solution to their vulnerability:  They would attack the Totonacs, wear them down and eventually incorporate most of the territory of the Kingdom of Totonacapan into their ever-expanding empire.  According to Aztec taxation records that still survive to this day, in the early 1500s the Totonacs were sending a great deal of tribute to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, mostly in the form of agricultural products and humans to be used as slaves or in sacrifices.  At the time of the arrival of Cortés, the Totonacs were almost completely under the Aztec jackboot.

With a great degree of abundance and a highly advanced civilization, the Totonacs produced fine works of art that are easily recognizable to the trained eye.  Laughing and smiling sculptures seem to be the hallmarks of Totonac statuary.  They also produced beautiful pottery that was exported throughout ancient Mexico and has been unearth in all parts of Mesoamerica.  As with other pre-Hispanic cultures in Mexico, the Totonacs honored their gods in art.  As they left no written language, much of what is known about the Totonac belief system comes from the many artistic representations of the gods and how researchers interpret them.  Researcher interpretation draws on modern-day Totonac sources and the Mesoamerican “continuity theory” which assumes that many of the cultures of ancient Mexico either overlapped or borrowed from each other, thus sharing similar beliefs.  Chief among the gods of the Totonacs was the sun god.  They dedicated the main temple at Cempoala to this god.  The sun god was married the corn goddess.  While the sun god demanded human sacrifice, the corn goddess demanded animal sacrifice in her rituals accompanied by flowers and herbs.  Other important Totonac gods include the Old God of Fire, represented as an old man wearing a rather weighty headpiece, and another god referred to as Old Thunder.  Old Thunder was god of all the waters except for the rain.  He wanted to flood the world because drowning victims became his minions in the afterlife.  The Totonac rain god is very similar to Tlaloc, the old god of the Aztecs associated with rain.  Many other gods were tied to places or the elements and are represented in the many figurines unearthed at Totonac sites.

What became of the Totonacs after their fateful alliance with the Spanish?  The Totonacs along with the Tlaxcalans made up most of the indigenous fighting force that helped Hernán Cortés conquer the Aztec Empire.  Instead of giving them their complete freedom, the Spanish gave the Totonacs a sort of limited autonomy for a while and slowly integrated them into the colonial society of New Spain.  The remaining Totonacs who survived European-introduced diseases were Christianized within a few generations, but many living in the mountainous areas of Puebla and Veracruz held onto their religious beliefs for a few centuries after the arrival of the Spanish.  As was the case in many other parts of the world where Christianity encountered other religions, in the former lands of Totonacapan a sort of syncretism developed blending some of the old beliefs with the new.  In 1836, after Mexican independence, the Bishop of Puebla, Francisco Pablo Vázquez, prohibited the Totonacs from celebrating their Holy Week rituals which were deemed “too pagan.”  This resulted in a 2-year-long indigenous uprising led by a man named Mariano Olarte which began at Papantla, Veracruz.  At the end of the rebellion the Totonacs were given legal recognition of their communal lands and enjoyed a limited state of self-governance throughout most of the 19th Century.  During the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th Century, many Totonac villages were attacked and burned.  Many Mexican mestizos moved in on Totonac communal lands at this time and conflicts over land ownership became more and more common.  Most Totonacs throughout the last century became more and more integrated into the broader mestizo culture of Mexico.  As with many other indigenous languages around the world, there are fewer and fewer people speaking the Totonac dialects these days.  According to UNESCO’s measurement of language endangerment, one dialect of Totonac, called Misantla, is considered “severely endangered” as there are less than 500 speakers in a few villages, mostly elderly people.  There are still Totonacs living traditional tribal existences in remote areas and the government of Mexico in the 21st Century is trying to preserve their language and culture.  Surrounding Mexican culture and in a broader sense, globalism, pose gigantic threats to the survival of the traditional Totonac way of life.  Some fear that what’s left of Totonac culture may not survive more than several decades into the future.  Outsiders may never be able get a complete understanding of this complex  and interesting people.


Enríquez Andrade, Héctor Manuel.  La jerarquía de los dioses totonacos.  México, D.F. : Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2013.   (in Spanish)  Mexico Unexplained is an Amazon affiliate.  Buy the book on Amazon here: 

Franco y González Salas, María Teresa.  The Huastec and Totonac World.  México, D.F. :  Grupo Financiero Inverlat, 1993.  Mexico Unexplained is an Amazon affiliate.  Buy the book on Amazon here:

Levy, Paulette.  Totanaco de Papantla.  México, D.F.: El Colegio de México, 1990. (In Spanish)  Mexico Unexplained is an Amazon affiliate.  Buy the book on Amazon here:

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