This post tells the story of the rise of the Toltec civilization in central Mexico about 50 years after the fall of Teotihuacan, comprised of two of the seven ethnicities that made up Teotihuacan, the Totonac and Cakchiquel. It describes the oppressive practices of the Toltec which caused refugees fleeing north and south, the latter becoming the Nawat-speaking Pipil who went to El Salvador. Some of the Toltec followed the refugees to El Salvador where they ruled for about 130 years until their centers were burned. Seventy years later, in a bitter split of the Toltec, the losers, the Nahuatlized Totonac, also fled to El Salvador.
The Toltec civilization was active from 800 to 1150 CE, based in Tula in the current Mexican state of Hidalgo. Tula is located 60 kilometers northwest of Teotihuacan and 75 kilometers north of Mexico City. Tula is Tollan in Nahuatl and probably comes from Tulan in Ch'orti'. Tulan shares the last syllable with Aztlan and in Ch'orti' would be tul lah ahn or "condition of fatigued current," describing the Gulf of Fonseca where the ancient origin place of Isla Tigre is located.
Tula developed about 50 years after the fall of Teotihuacan. It was likely settled by one or more of the seven ethnicities who made up Teotihuacan - more on the likely Toltec ethnicities later.
The Toltec civilization is known for the god Quetzalcoatl. As I demonstrated earlier, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, refers to the meditation (coiled up snake) and gymnastics (bird swinging in the air) that the Maya began in the early pre-Classic at Chalchuapa. The Toltec were known for their yoga or kinam. Kinam is kin am in Ch'orti' and means "spider sticks" or "spider limbs".
Tula and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan have some architectural similarities that could indicate a relationship. (Fowler)
Many of sculptures and images at Tula are warriors or relate to human sacrifice. The wikipedia entry for Tula says, "War and sacrifice are prominent themes at the site with images representing warriors such as jaguars and coyotes as well as eagles eating human hearts. There are also images of serpents eating skeletal figures and skulls in various areas." The name Toltec reflects this identity. It was a name given by the Ch'orti' and it is not complementary. In Ch'orti' it is tol tech and means "expansion of the bruisers." Bruisers could also be translated mutilators, torturers, or sacrificers.
The chakmool sculptures are common at Tula. They have a reclining person with a stone tray on their stomach. It is thought that they were used to hold sacrificing gifts like tamales although a later Aztec one contained an object like a human heart. The name chakmool indicates that at Tula they were also for human hearts. Chakmool is chak mol in Ch'orti' and means "red pile," a reference to a bloody heart.
The "expansion of the bruisers" created a humanitarian disaster in central Mexico. The captures, killings, and human sacrificing must have been at a scale never seen before in Mesoamerica. The rise of human sacrifice at Tula may have contributed to the downfall of the Maya at the end of the Classic period. First, it may have created a moral crisis for the Maya that a Mesoamerican people (of Maya background) could engage in such a high level of human sacrificing. Second, many of the Maya likely became involved in plans to evacuate much of the central Mexico population. Coordinating the evacuation would have distracted the Maya leadership. Tikal's last major pyramid and monuments were built in 810 CE, about ten years after the founding of Tula. Copan's last king came to power in 822 CE but the monument he commissioned was never finished.
I believe that much of the dispersion of the Uto-Aztecan language group is due to the evacuation of Nahuatl speakers from the central valley of Mexico during the time of the Toltec. Later, Nahuatl speakers also fled the Aztec, especially the Nicarao who fled to Nicaragua. At the time of the Toltec, Nahuatl-speaking groups who became the Shoshone, Paiute, Hopi, Comanche, Pima, Yaqui, Mayo, and Tarahumara were likely fleeing the Toltec bruisers.
Some have names, likely given by the Ch'orti' coordinating the evacuation, that reflect the difficult time. For example, Yaqui is yah ki' in Ch'orti' and means "painful heart." This likely reflects both the pain suffered by their relatives who were sacrificed, as well as their emotional pain of losing loved ones and leaving their homeland. Mayo is mah yo'b in Ch'orti' and means "bad ones strike" and would seem to indicate the blows from the Toltec warriors that they endured.
Among those who went north were nahuatlized Mixteca, Otomi, Huasteca, Quiche, Olmeka, Mejica, and Purepecha. As they went north they gained new identities as Hopi, Comanche, Shoshone, Pima, and Yaqui, etc. As they got to know their new neighbors, the Zuni, they gained the name Chicano, ch'i' kah noh, which means "small ones and large ones from the beginning." The Zuni were a taller race and were cousins of the Xibalba, whom the Maya ancestors confronted for over a thousand years when they first arrived in Central America. Relations were probably not much better with the Zuni.
It is hard to know if the migration of the refugees to the north or the migration to the south happened first. The oral tradition of the Pipil suggests a 9th century migration and that the Pipil were adopted by the Ch'orti'. Perhaps the Ch'orti' supported the 1200 kilometer overland migration with logistics.
The oral tradition calls the migration, the "Pipiltzin". The last syllable is sin or "series," which suggests that there were several waves of migrations from Central Mexico to eastern Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Pipiltzin could also mean "numbers of Pipil," signifying a large migration.
My reading of Fowler's The Cultural Evolution of Ancient Nahua Civilizations, the Pipil-Nicarao of Central America, is that likely there were four post-Classic migrations from Central Mexico to Central America:
- Those fleeing the Toltec who went to western El Salvador, the first to be called Pipil
- A Toltec group that followed the refugees to El Salvador
- A Nonoalco group that was timed with the winding down of the Toltec, who also went to El Salvador
- The Nicarao group that fled the Aztec probably in the 14th century and went to Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
The first migration, and possibly later ones, was called Pipil, a name which confirms the oral tradition that the Ch'orti' accompanied the Pipil. In Ch'orti' it is pi pil or "companions on the journey" - a beautiful name. The Pipil journey and name make the other name for the Pipil - Nahuat - that much more ironic. Nahuat also comes from Ch'orti' - nab wat - and means "forget about returning home." At the end of the Teotihuacan days a new common language developed, Nahuat (Nabwat) or Nahuatl, and people left behind their old languages because they resigned themselves to the idea that they would never return home (to El Salvador).
But the Pipil, the Nahuat, did return home, although likely under duress. Just like the refugees who fled north, the Pipil were likely made up of many different ethnicities. To clarify, at that time Nahuat was a language, not an ethnicity. But on the journey, the Pipil became a new ethnicity. Their ethnicities of origin would have been Mixteca (or Zapotec), Otomi, Huasteca, Quiche, Olmeka, Mejica, and Purepecha. All, without exception, had roots in El Salvador.
The Mixteca, Zapotec, and Otomi people had moved from the San Vicente department of El Salvador to the Puebla state of Mexico in about 7000 BCE. The Huasteca and Totonac were of Chol-Ch'orti' origin and were forced to move from western El Salvador to the northeast Mexico coast between 2400 and 2000 BCE as part of the pellagra crisis. The Quiche moved from Coatepeque to the northwest coast of Mexico due to pellagra in about 2300 BCE. The Olmeka, Mejica, and Purepecha all moved from southeast El Salvador to Mexico due to pellagra, first the Purepecha to the Michoacan coast and later the Olmeka (some of whom later became the Mejica) moved to the Guatemala/Mexico coastal area in about 1800 BCE.
A 9th century arrival of the Pipil to El Salvador is mostly supported by Fowler, who cites two linguistic studies, one showing a Nawat language divergence of 650 to 850 CE and another one of 801 CE. Fowler also cites de Borhegyi who saw evidence for three migrations, the first of which was in about 800 CE.
The place name Santa Isabel Ishuatan, in southeast Sonsonate department, supports the idea of the Pipil as refugees. It is ix wat ahn in Ch'orti' and means "return home in running movement."
Soon after the Pipil arrived in El Salvador, it appears that a group of the Toltec decided to follow them. In part this may have been to expand Toltec culture to historically important El Salvador. But it was more likely to intimidate the newly arrived Pipil who had just fled the Toltec and their human sacrifice ways. Based on the Cihuatan Archeology Project, the site of Cihuatan, near Aguilares, was established in about 900 CE, marking the arrival time of the Toltec. They likely came by boat from Mexico - walking from Tula to a river like the Rio Balsas, down the Pacific Coast, then up the Lempa, and disembarking at Suchitoto. From Suchitoto it is a 20 kilometer walk west to the Cihuatan site, around the north side of Guazapa volcano.
The name Suchitoto tells us who the Toltec were. It is a Ch'orti' name, either given by the Ch'orti' or the Toltec used a Ch'orti' naming protocol. Suchitoto is sutz si t'ot toh and means "numbers of bats and tap sacrificers." The only Mesoamerican people with a bat emblem are the Cakchiquel. The Cakchiquel are also mentioned in the Popol Vuh with a bat emblem. Even more, during the first round of human sacrificing in about 8300 BCE, the Popol Vuh says that the Cakchiquel were the only lineage to be exempt from human sacrifice, presumably because they first cultivated tobacco so they did not have to "draw a straw."
The other half of Suchitoto - "tap sacrificers" - does make a vague reference to the practice of heart sacrifice of the Toltec, but it is the two syllables together "toto," that tell us that the Totonac were the other lineage that were part of the Toltec. The Cakchiquel and the Totonac made up two of the seven groups that founded Teotihuacan and it appears that they were the two strong groups coming out of Teotihuacan ready to form the next culture.
Source of photo. Cihuatan is one of the most important archeological sites in El Salvador. It is located about 45 kilometers north of San Salvador and just a few kilometers northeast of Aguilares. The fertile soils on the west and north sides of Guazapa Volcano were utilized extensively for cacao as well as staples like corn, squash, and beans.
Cihuatan was a large, multi-cultural city, similar to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. Those who have studied it (Brahn) have found at least seven neighborhoods, including Maya and Lenca neighborhoods, each with its own ceremonial center. Based on who was living in El Salvador at the time, groups present at Cihuatan likely included the Cakchiquel, Totonac, Lenca, Ch'orti', and several ethnicities of Pipil.
The meaning of Cihuatan supports a Mexican migration. Cihuatan has a double meaning. The name crafters were skilled, finding a name with meaning in Nawat and in Ch'orti'. In Nawat, Cihua means "woman" and refers to the feminine reclined shape of the nearby Guazapa volcano.
Ch'orti' was used as a naming language throughout Mesoamerica, including the second meaning of "Cihuatan". It is si wat ahn and means "return home to the series of currents." The use of the phrase "return home" is relevant since the Cakchiquel and Totonac were each banished from El Salvador to Mexico due to pellagra, the Cakchiquel in about 2300 BCE and the Totonac between 2300 and 2000 BCE. The "series of currents" - many rivers - would have been in contrast to the dryness of Mexico's central valley and Veracruz. By using the syllable wat ("return home") in the name of Cihuatan, the Toltec legitimized their move to El Salvador on humanitarian grounds - people returning to their ancient homeland. The name helps to mask their possible motive of intimidation in their move to El Salvador.
One can see a broader extension of Toltec and, especially, Cakchiquel influence in the place names to the east of Cihuatan: Chalatenango, Pepeishtenango, Papaturo (maybe), Tenango, Tenancingo, and Pepeto. Tobacco growing and processing is still somewhat common in this area - another Cakchiquel influence, as it was the Cakchiquels who first grew tobacco on Isla Tigre, Honduras.
The Toltec at Cihuatan did not arrive to a power vacuum. The Ch'orti' at Chalchuapa and San Andres effectively controlled most of El Salvador west of the Lempa River, as well as Chalatenango. The Ch'orti' were weary of the Toltec. The name Aguilares shows the Ch'orti', watching the arrival of the Toltec: ak' il ahr retz, which means "viewing the occasion of the rising of the flag." In addition, the Cotzumalhuapa had controlled Cara Sucia since about 600 CE. And the Lenca controlled the east.
The Toltec arrived with a military force. Archeological evidence indicates that Chalchuapa and Cara Sucia were taken over by a central Mexican presence in about 900 CE (Fowler). Toltec warrior plaques were present at the Loma China site in San Vicente near the Puente Cuscatlan (Fowler). Controlling the Lempa River would have been very strategic for the Toltec, given the predominance of water travel by the Ch'orti'. The Toltec also took over Lago Guija (Fowler), especially important for the Totonac since their roots were there.
Further evidence that Cihuatan was a Toltec center consists of the figurines and biconical spiked censers there that are like those at Tula (Fowler). Likewise, the wheeled figurines are like those on the Gulf Coast (Totonac). The architectural structures at Cihuatan are central Mexican and similar those at Chichen Itza.
The Toltec ruled over western El Salvador for about 130 years. In about 1030 CE, according to the Cihuatan Archeological Project, Cihuatan fell. Enemies destroyed Cihuatan and all the other ceremonial centers by fire (and possibly gunpowder explosions). It is unclear who these enemies were but at the top of the list of their enemies would have been the Ch'orti' who were displaced by the Toltec and were against the human sacrificing ways of the Toltec. The Ch'orti', and their likely allies, the Putun, also would have been capable, even in the Post-Classic.
The surviving Toltec leaders most likely fled north to the Lempa River to boats that would take them eventually to Mexico. It seems likely that many of the Toltec-related people in the area stayed. They spoke Nawat, like the Pipil. These Toltec descendants, whether Totonac or Cakchiquel, would have been counted as Pipil at the time of the arrival of the Spanish.
A third migration out of central Mexico occurred around 1100 CE, about 70 years after Cihuatan fell. It is called the Nonoalco migration and is associated with the Veracruz Gulf Coast (Totonac). It is known that there was an internal power struggle at Tula in about 1100 CE. It is likely that the Cakchiquel were victorious over the Totonac in this power struggle and that the Totonac Toltec, called the Nonoalco, fled to El Salvador, the second major wave of the Pipil.
According to the archeology, a new wave of central Mexicans founded Antigua Cuscatlan, El Salvador, at about that time (Fowler) - most likely the Nonoalco Pipil. Later, Antigua Cuscatlan became the center of the Pipil kingdom. Place names indicate that the Nonoalco also settled in La Paz department in the area of Zacatecoluca.
Counting the Toltec and Nonoalco waves, I would roughly estimate the ethnicities of the Pipil in El Salvador to be about one-third Totonac, one-fourth Otomi, one-sixth each Cakchiquel and Mejica, and smaller portions of Quiche, Mixtec, and Purepecha. The presence of Quiche Pipil is likely at San Antonio Masahuat and San Pedro Masahuat in La Paz department. Masa is "deer" in Nawat and Ch'orti' and wat means "return home" in Ch'orti', so Masahuat is "return home of the deer". Deer is the totem animal of the Quiche, seen at Mazatlan, for example. Also many "deer" leaders of the Quiche are listed in the Popol Vuh.
The last migration wave from central Mexico was caused by the Aztec (Mejica) oppression and practice of human sacrifice. This is the Nicarao wave that primarily went to Nicaragua. The oral history of the Nicarao states that they had been subjugated by the Olmeca. Earlier I showed that the Mejica (Aztec) and the Olmeca were the same people, linking the migration of the Nicarao to the rise of the Aztec. Some of this last wave likely settled eastern Guatemala as well, with some possibly going to Honduras and El Salvador.
In conclusion, the rise of the Toltec threw central Mexico into chaos. Refugees fled north and south, giving rise to many new Native nations in the north and the Pipil in El Salvador, the "companions on the journey." One group of Toltec followed the refugees to El Salvador where they ruled for about 130 years. Ironically, one of the two Toltec ethnicities, the Totonac, had to flee themselves from Tula, becoming the second wave of the Pipil. A major portion of the Salvadoran indigenous milieu is based in this complex post-Classic history.