Totonac Culture: Location, Origin, Characteristics, Religion

The Totonac culture was an indigenous civilization that settled in Mesoamerica, specifically in the current Mexican state of Veracruz, in the northern area of ​​Puebla and on the coast. At first they formed a confederation of cities, although historians point out that, later, they created three manors.

Its most important urban centers were El Tajín (between 300 and 1200 AD), Papantla (between 900 and 1519) and Cempoala (the same dates as the previous one). Although all three stood out for their monumental architecture and sculptures, it was the first who became the best example of the splendor of this culture.

The origins of the Totonacs are little known. According to the most correct theory, this town, belonging to the Huasteco nucleus, would come from Chicomoztoc, from where they would initiate a migration that put them in contact with other cultures that inhabited the country. Although they were unsuccessful in their attempts to settle in various areas, they did pick up influences from the Olmecs or the Chichimecas.

Later they suffered the attacks of the Aztecs, who managed to conquer a good part of the territory controlled by the Totonacs. In response to this, there was a meeting of all their cities in which they decided to support the newly arrived Spanish conquerors in their fight against the common enemy.

Geographical and temporal location

The Totonac culture appeared in the Classic period and continued during the Postclassic, two of the stages in which the history of Mesoamerica is divided.

This civilization also receives the name of the Tajín culture, a name that comes from the most important ceremonial and urban center of the Totonacs. The period of greatest splendor of this city occurred between 300 and 1200 AD. C.

In addition to El Tajín, the Totonacs had two other important ceremonial centers. Both, Papantla and Cempoala, lived their best time between 900 and 1519 BC. C., until the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.

Geographic location

The area that the Totonacs occupied was in the center of Veracruz, in present-day Mexico. During the late Classic period they extended their territories until they reached the Papaloapan River to the south. Likewise, they reached part of the states of Oaxaca and Puebla, the Perote Valley, the Papantla and Puebla mountains and the lower area of ​​the Cazones River.

One of the characteristics of the Totonacapan region, the one occupied by this culture, was its humid and temperate climate. This allowed them to obtain large crops of corn, beans, chili or squash, something essential for the population to increase.

The fertility of the land allowed them to survive the famine that occurred in central Mexico between 1450 and 1454, which affected the Aztecs to the point of offering themselves as slaves to the Totonacs in exchange for corn.

Origin and history

Few data are known about the origin of the Totonac culture. Historians think that they came from the Huastec nucleus, although they developed their own culture after coming into contact with the Olmecs and the different Nahua peoples of central Mexico, such as the Toltecs or the Teotihuacanos.


According to the most accepted theories, the Totonacs left Chicomoztoc, located in northern Mexico, and headed for the center of the country. On their way they passed through various places, such as the Tamiahua lagoon, Misantla, Tula or Teotihuacán, until they reached Mixquihuacan, where they established their capital.

From that town they began to conquer some nearby lands. However, they could not maintain their dominance in the area, since they were expelled by the Chichimecas.

This meant that he had to move again in search of a better place to settle. Apparently they passed through Teayo and Yohualichan before finding a suitable area. Finally, in a region that would receive the name of Totonacapan, they were able to build cities like El Tajín and Cempoala.

Time of splendor

Historians divide the history of this culture into several stages. The initial one, during the early Classic, was characterized by the development of Baroque.

After this period, already in the classic Horizon, the Totonac culture evolved considerably. From the 6th to the 9th century, the settlements of this civilization grew remarkably. As an example, El Tajín covered about 1,200 hectares.

From 900 AD C., in the early Postclassic, there was a growth in the commercial activity of the Totonacs, as well as in other aspects of their economy. These improvements led to its heyday, which began in 1200 and lasted until the arrival of the Spanish.

Aztec attacks and arrival of the Spanish

Despite their strength, the Totonacs could not avoid being defeated by the Aztecs, who launched a military campaign against them in the mid-15th century. After his victory, the Mexican emperor, Moctezuma I, imposed the payment of heavy tributes to the defeated, as well as the obligation to deliver hundreds of children each year to enslave them.

The situation changed with the arrival of the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés. They had reached the shores of Veracruz in 1519 and, on their way north, they learned of the existence of Cempoala. The Spanish sent a message to the Totonac city authorities and agreed to hold a meeting with them.

The Totonac chief of Cempoala received the Spaniards with great hospitality. According to the accounts, when Cortés asked how he could reward a good reception, the Totonacs began to complain about the treatment they received from the Aztecs.

The Totonacs saw the arrival of the Spanish as a good opportunity to free themselves from Aztec rule. Thus, 30 peoples belonging to that culture met in Cempoala and agreed to ally with Cortés to defeat their enemies.

The result was the incorporation of 1,300 Totonac warriors to Cortés’s forces. Together with the 500 Spaniards present in the area, they set out to defeat the empire of the Aztecs.

Under Spanish rule

The alliance with the Spanish allowed the Totonacs to get rid of Aztec control. However, this only served them to come under Spanish rule. Very soon, the conquerors began to force them to abandon their traditions and beliefs.

One of the main tools for the Totonacs to abandon their culture was religion since they imposed Christianity against the traditional polytheism that they had followed up to that moment.


As happened with other Mesoamerican peoples, the Totonacs became serfs of the Spanish through the encomienda system. Thus, they were assigned to work on the estates, especially those dedicated to sugar cane.

Cempoala ended up being abandoned and the Totonac culture practically disappeared. Only at the end of the 19th century was it rediscovered thanks to the work of the Mexican historian and archaeologist Francisco del Paso y Troncoso.


Although the Spanish hardly used violence to conquer Totonacapan, its inhabitants suffered a great death. The main cause was the diseases carried by the conquerors.

However, today there are still around 90,000 people who maintain the Totonac language. These are divided between 26 municipalities in Puebla and 14 municipalities in Veracruz.

General characteristics

As has been pointed out, the Totonac culture collected and incorporated many characteristics of other peoples, such as the Olmecs or the Teotihuacanoes. With these influences and their own contributions they created an important civilization that spread all the way to Oaxaca.

pottery of the Totonac culture


The word “totonaca”, according to the Dictionary of the Nahuatl or Mexican Language , is the plural of “totonacatl” and refers to the inhabitants of the Totonacapan region. Some experts point out that “Totonaco” could mean “man from the hot land.”

On the other hand, in the Totonac language the word has the meaning of “three hearts”, which would refer to the three great ceremonial centers built by this culture: El Tajín, Papantla and Cempoala.

Socio-political organization

There are few references on the social and political organization of the Totonac culture. The studies carried out have been based on archaeological findings and the most accepted theory is that it was a society divided into several social classes.

This social pyramid was headed by the nobility, made up of the ruling Chieftain, the rest of the authorities and the priests. All of them were in charge of controlling all spheres of power, from the political to the religious, through the economic.

His government, as has been pointed out, was led by the Cacique, who was assisted by the Council of Elders.

For their part, the priests also played a leading role within this culture. His functions included directing ceremonial cults, conducting astronomical observations, and directing ceremonies.

This religious caste was governed by the prosecutors (members of the Council of Elders) and, after them, the mayordomos (sponsors of the festivals) and the topiles (in charge of the care of the temples).

As for the base of the pyramid, it was formed by the commoners, the majority of the inhabitants. They were in charge of agricultural production, crafts, fishing and construction.


The Totonacs took advantage of the fertility of the lands they inhabited to cultivate large areas of corn. However, unlike other pre-Columbian civilizations, this cereal was not the main element of their diet. That role was played by fruits such as sapote, guava, avocado or avocado.

According to experts, peasants and nobles agreed on the composition of their first meal of the day: corn porridge. As for lunch, the nobles ate stews with beans and cassava, dressed with meat sauce. The poor, although with a similar diet, could not afford these sauces.

In addition to these foods, it is known that men fished sharks and hunted turtles, armadillos, deer, or frogs. For their part, women raised dogs and turkeys. Both aspects lead to think that these animals were incorporated into the diet.


According to Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary who learned Nahuatl to document indigenous customs, Totonac women were very elegant and conspicuously dressed.

According to the religious, the nobles used to wear embroidered skirts, in addition to a small triangular poncho at the height of the chest and called quexquemetl. They also adorned themselves with jade and shell necklaces and wore earrings and a kind of red makeup.

For their part, the men of the nobility wore capes of various colors, loincloths, bezotes and other items made with quetzal feathers.

Nowadays, the women of this culture wear the shirt, the apron, the petticoat, the girdles and the quexquemetl as traditional clothing. All this is made by the women themselves, since they maintain the reputation of being excellent weavers.


As in other aspects, the religion practiced by the Totonacs is very little known. Almost everything that is known comes from an essay carried out by the French ethnographer Alain Ichon, in 1960. Among its conclusions, the complexity of the belief system of this culture stands out.


The Totonac pantheon was made up of a large number of gods who were organized according to a hierarchy of importance. Thus, the following categories existed: main gods; secondary; owners; minor owners; and gods of the underworld. In total it is believed that they numbered about 22 deities.

The most important god was identified with the Sun , to whom some human sacrifices were offered. Next to him was his wife, the Corn Goddess, who was gifted with animal sacrifices, as she detested those of humans. Another important deity was “Old Thunder”, called Tajin or Aktsini.

The Totonacs also incorporated into their pantheon some gods common to those of other Mesoamerican civilizations. Among them were Tláloc, Quetzalcóatl, Xochipilli or Xipetotec.


The ceremonies of the Totonac culture were closely related to their religious beliefs. Thus, among the most frequent were sacrifices, both human and animal, a ceremonial planting or setting fire. Self-sacrifice was also practiced.

In the field of funeral customs, the Totonacs used both individual and collective burials.

Another important religious ceremony was that of Los Voladores. This, which is still being practiced, was used to ask the gods to end a period of drought.


As noted, the Spanish conquerors forced the Totonacs to abandon their beliefs and embrace Catholicism. For this reason, today the majority is their main religion, although with some elements coming from their ancient polytheistic religion.

Like other peoples in Latin America, the Totonacs incorporated some of their myths and rituals into their Catholicism. This combination gave rise to a religiosity of its own, in which great importance is given to sacred beings. On many occasions, Christian saints were identified with some of their deities.

On the other hand, in current Totonac communities the figure of the healer still exists, embodied by some prestigious person with deep knowledge about health, well-being and good harvests.

Ceremonial centers

Before the Spanish conquerors came to Mesoamerica, the Totonacs had built several important cities. Among them, three ceremonial centers that became the center of their civilization: Cempoala, Papantla and El Tajín.

The Tajin

The city of El Tajín was built in the current state of Veracruz. Its moment of greatest splendor occurred between the 9th and 13th centuries AD. C., a period in which it was one of the most important urban centers in Mesoamerica.

The influence of El Tajín extended well beyond the city. In this way, that influence spread throughout the gulf and reached the region controlled by the Mayans.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this ceremonial center was the majesty of its architecture. This one, decorated by complex reliefs carved on the friezes and columns, was planned according to astronomy.

The most important building was the Pyramid of the Niches, the best example of how the Totonacs incorporated their astronomical observations and their symbolism into their constructions.


Papantla (900 – 1519) was built in the Sierra Papanteca. Just before the arrival of the Spanish, the city had 60,000 inhabitants, a very important number for the time. Already in colonial times, Papantla took over from El Tajín as the main focus of Totonac culture.

The name of the city comes from the Nahuatl word “papán”, which designated a type of bird in the area, and from “tlan”, which means “place”. Therefore, the most accurate translation would be “place of the papans”.

However, locals say that the name is not actually derived from those two words. His theory is that it means “place of the good Moon.”


The etymology of its name (Cēmpoal means “twenty” in Nahuatl and ā (tl), means “water”) has led some historians to think that this city could have many irrigation canals and aqueducts. These would serve to bring water to farmland and gardens.

Cempoala was occupied by the Totonacs when the Toltecs were at their peak, between 1000 and 1150 BC. According to experts, their arrival at the place was due to the fact that the Toltecs themselves had expelled them from the eastern part of the Sierra Madre Oriental.

The archaeological remains found prove that the place had large squares and fortifications. To build these structures, the Totonacs used stones from the river, to which they applied mortar and lime.

The Aztecs called the city the “place of accounts”, since it was there that they collected tributes from the peoples of the Gulf of Mexico coast.


As noted, the region where the Totonacs settled enjoyed very favorable conditions for agriculture. For this reason, this activity became its main economic engine.

The most important crops of this culture were corn, beans, chili, cocoa, vanilla and an important variety of fruit.

To the cultivation of their fertile lands, the Totonacs joined their commercial activity, specifically the exchange of handicrafts and other items with the nearby towns. Their communication routes with those other towns were eminently river and lake, although they also created some transport networks by land.

Other economic activities with weight in this culture were hunting and fishing. In the first case, they used to capture animals such as wild boar or wild turkey, while their fishermen took advantage of all the species they could find.

He also highlighted the benefit that this culture obtained from the mangroves. From this type of land they obtained mollusks, fish, turtles and some birds.

Land selection

The first cultivation technique used by the Totonacs was the milpa. This consists of a soil selection system that has the advantage of not depleting the soils. The reason is that the different products planted, such as corn, beans or squash, provide the nutrients that the soil needs to stay in an optimal state.

Over time, although this system was maintained, the farmers of this culture began to use artificial irrigation channels.

Art and sculptures

The most important artistic manifestations of the Totonac culture occurred in sculpture, ceramics and, especially, in architecture. The remains found in their ancient ceremonial centers have shown the skill of this town in construction.


The constructions made by the Totonacs used to have stone and adobe as their raw materials. These characteristics can still be seen today in Cempoala, thanks to the buildings erected on the squares.

Among all the buildings built by this culture, the most outstanding is the Pyramid of the Niches. Located in El Tajín, it is a pyramidal stone structure with great astronomical and symbolic significance. Its name comes from its 365 windows, which represent the days of the year.


Pottery was another artistic manifestation in which the Totonac culture demonstrated great skill.

A good example is the well-known Smiling Caritas, small pottery works that represent smiling human faces. Small in size, about 20 centimeters high, they were made with baked clay.


The main elements used by the Totonacs to make their sculptures were stone and clay. Its function was eminently decorative, highlighting the so-called Smoky Jícaras.

Other sculptures, made with a very elaborate technique, represented axes, locks, palms or ball players.

Music and dance

The traditional dance of the Totonac culture is called son huasteco or huapango. Each population nucleus contributed its own characteristics to dance and music.

The music that still accompanies this dance today is performed with jaranas, violins, guitars and fifths. These instruments are joined by others handcrafted by the Totonacs themselves.


The Totonac culture had its own language: Totonac. This, like it happened with Tepehua, were not linked to other linguistic families. The language also receives other names, such as tutunacu, tachihuiin or tutunakuj.

Experts consider that the Totonac belonged to the so-called macro-Mayan trunk and was described for the first time by a Spanish missionary, Fray Andrés de Olmos.

The Totonaca today

According to the 1990 census, there are currently 207,876 people who speak the Totonac language. Most of them reside in Veracruz and Puebla, although they can also be found in other states such as Mexico, Tlaxcala, Quintana Roo, Campeche or Hidalgo.

Customs and traditions

The traditions and customs of the Totonacs were the result of the mixture between their own and those collected from other peoples with whom they were related. According to experts, during their formative stage they received an important influence from the Olmecs, as well as from some Nahua peoples, such as the Toltecs.

Apart from the influence of these civilizations, the Totonac culture also collected elements from the Mayans, the Teotihuacanos and the Huastecos.

Family organization

Totonac families were organized into very extensive consanguineous nuclei. Normally, all of its members resided near the father figure.

When a marriage was celebrated it was customary for the bride’s parents to give a dowry in the form of money, goods or work.

On the other hand, Totonac men had to work for the community at least one day a year, although the nobles could get out if they paid a certain amount.

Using the wheel

Although it is not a unanimously accepted theory, many archaeologists claim that the Totonacs were the first American people to use the wheel before the arrival of the Spanish.

However, the use of this element did not occur in the economy. Thus, the Totonac culture did not use it for agriculture or other agricultural activities, but as part of some toys.

In addition, it was also used as an element in the construction of sphinxes in the shape of animals. These statues, with their built-in axes and wheels, were made for some rituals or ceremonies.

Papantla Flyers

The Voladores dance is undoubtedly the most famous Totonac tradition. With great symbolism, this dance was associated (and still is done) with rituals so that the harvest was good. In this way, the participants invoke the so-called four directions of the universe, the water, the wind, the earth, the Sun and the Moon to promote the fertility of the land.

It is not known for sure when this dance began to be practiced. The lack of data on him was caused by the destruction of documents and codices carried out by the Spanish conquerors in their attempt to make the indigenous people abandon their traditions and beliefs.

However, oral history and the writings of some missionaries have allowed experts to elaborate theories about the appearance of this dance and its evolution.

According to a Totonac myth, a great drought affected their territory. This caused a lack of food and water, so five young people decided to send a message to the god of fertility, Xipe Totec. His intention was that the divinity would send rains and, in this way, that the crops would improve.

The youths went into the forest, removed the branches and leaves from the tallest tree. After this, they dug a hole to be able to fix it vertically. After blessing the place, the five men used feathers to adorn their bodies and made Xipe Totec think they were birds.

Finally, they wrapped ropes around their waists, secured themselves to the tree, and carried out their request by flying with a sound emanating from a flute and a drum.

According to scholars, this dance was performed in much of pre-Columbian Mexico. Specifically, it was done every 52 years, when the calendar cycle changed. After a while, only the Totonacs and the Otomi kept the tradition.


Another pre-Hispanic tradition that continues to be celebrated, although with changes, is that of the Ninin, a term that translates into Spanish as “the dead”. Generally speaking, it is a series of rituals related to funeral ceremonies, to which some Catholic elements were incorporated after the conquest.

The celebration begins on October 18, on the day of Saint Luke (a saint that the Totonacs identified with the god of thunder). That day the first souls arrive, those belonging to those who died by drowning. According to tradition, from that date on, rockets were launched or bells were rung three times a day.

Likewise, the Totonacs begin that day to buy everything they need to erect their altars. Family meetings also begin, in which the tasks that each one must carry out are distributed.

The altars have to be prepared and decorated by October 31, since the souls of the children who have died must arrive at noon. This presence lasts only one day, since on November 1, when the souls of the adults arrive, those of the little ones temporarily withdraw.

Between November 8 and 9, the Totonacs celebrate the Aktumajat to say goodbye to those who died of natural death. From then on until the end of that month, there is the dismissal of those who died violently.

On the 30th, all the souls march towards the cemetery accompanied by offerings, music, songs and dances.

Traditional medicine

Today’s Totonac communities continue to preserve some of the traditional figures related to medical care. These are midwives, who help mothers during childbirth, healers, experts in medicinal plants, and witches, who claim to have supernatural powers.


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