Totonaca culture: location, characteristics and religion

Totonaca culture: location, characteristics and religion

As part of the entire Mesoamerican cultural complex, the Totonaca Culture is added, which occupied the coastal and mountainous region of eastern Mexico, whose climate is characterized by being tropical, humid and rainy. This culture was long subject under the Aztec yoke until the arrival of the settlers.

It is important to note that the first foreign contact in this region occurred through this culture and the Europeans in the year 1519, where an alliance was created to seek a way to diminish the Aztec power in the region. Now, to learn a little more about the Totonaca culture, we will teach you its own characteristics such as: its place of residence, language, religion, economy, society and more.

Brief history of the Totonaca Culture

According to the Totonac oral tradition, his ancestry cooperated with the construction of the ancient city of Teotihuacán And, after the city’s decline, legend has it that they emigrated to the area that became known as Totonicapán, where they settled from 800 AD to 1100 AD.

Here they founded transcendental population centers such as Cempoala and Tajín. Before the appearance of the Spanish in these lands, the Totonacs lost control of their empire to the Aztecs who besieged them in 1480.

When they became part of the Aztec confederation, the Totonacs suffered greatly and made human offerings to their gods for the liberation of their people, so when Cortés arrived, the Totonacs seized the opportunity in response to their prayers and surrendered to their new Spanish rulers hoping to shake up the Aztecs.

Together they defeated the Aztecs with useful information the Totonacs had about their way of life and with Totonac soldiers for their conquering forces. Unfortunately, some time later in the areas where the colonizers resided, the diseases recently introduced by them, depleted the Totonac population, together with forced labor, which caused a dizzying mortality rate.

Totonaca culture: location, characteristics and religion

At that time, the Franciscan clergy also evangelized Totonicapán where they built churches with indigenous labor and turned the communities into a somewhat superficial Catholicism.

Fortunately for the Totonacs, the region’s hot and humid climate and uneven terrain made it unenchanting for most of the colonizers, giving indigenous peoples a certain political and cultural autonomy during the colonial period. Thus being essentially autonomous Totonac societies, they experienced limited external influence.


No one knows for sure where the name “Totonac” comes from, some believe that the word originates from the dialect of the Aztecs, Nahuatl and can express “man from the hot land”. Other researchers think that the word “Totonaco” comes from one of the Totonac dialects and is made up of two words, “tu-tu” which means “three” and “nacu” which means “heart”.

In 1950, two researchers named Isabel Kelly and Ángel Palerm theorized that the reference to the “three hearts” has to do with the three main centers of Totonac civilization. This has been the most repeated explanation, where one of the three centers on the list is Tajín.

Now, the “three hearts” have also mentioned that it may refer to three mounds that are found in the Totonac capital of Cempoala. However, archaeologists do not have concrete evidence of what these mounds mean, but they have determined that they have some astronomical or spiritual significance.

Geographic location

The territory where this culture was born is called TotonicapánIn this area, two large congregations of Totonacs were established, one in the states of Puebla (the Sierra Norte) and the other in Veracruz (the coasts) of present-day Mexico.

This is how the Totonacs were found from the mountains to the coastal plains, between the Cazones River and the Tecolutla River. Currently, this area continues to have the highest concentration of Totonac population. However, a growing number have migrated to cities in search of a better quality of life.


The Totonac language is unique among Mesoamerican indigenous speakers in that it has no known relationship to any other language or line of dialects, although some do link it to the Huasteca and Mayan language groups. The two main branches of the language are called Totonac and Tepehua..

Currently, this language is practiced in approximately nine dialects that are closely concerned and which are grouped by their relationship with the linguistic lines of the Totonacs and Tepehua.


This culture was considered one of the largest most significant producers of chili and vanilla in the world until the middle of the 19th century. The Totonacs had economic activities related long before the arrival of the colonists with the trade of cassava, corn, squash, tomatoes, beans, cotton and liquid amber among their close neighbors, as well as the raising of pigs, cattle and fishing .

Apart from commercial exchange and agriculture, they also developed crafts, working especially with ceramics, pottery and clay, becoming great producers of statuettes and sculptures.


It is known that the Totonacs were polytheistsThese worshiped a large number of gods to whom they gave a hierarchy which was organized in a descending way as follows:

  • Main gods
  • Secondary gods
  • The owners
  • Minor owners
  • Gods of the underworld

Among some of its gods stands out its adoration for: the sun god, the moon god, the goddess of corn and the old thunder. In modern times, the Totonacs see Catholicism and Christianity as their main religion, although they maintain the practices of ancient rituals linked to their ancient traditions.


Before the appearance of the Spanish in 1519, the Totonacs had built several cities, among the most significant are Cempoala, Papantla and El TajínThe latter being the city that shows the greatest cultural precision of this civilization.

Its architecture was totally unique among those that can be found in Mesoamerica, it used to be characterized by elaborate carved reliefs on the columns and frieze, usually with concepts related to the mystical, religious and astronomical. Among its most outstanding constructions we can mention:

  • Pirámide de los Nichos, Grupo del Arroyo, the ball court (north and south) and the Blue Temple in the city of Tajín.
  • The monument to the flyer, the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and the Chapel of Christ the King in Papantla.
  • The temples of the Sun, the Cross, the Mayor, the Chimneys and the Moctezuma palace in Cempoala.

Socio-political organization

Like most Mesoamerican peoples, the Totonac culture was socially ordered by three classes: the nobles who were in charge of managing the economy and religion, this class was made up of (the chief, the priests, the landowners and warriors).

In another group were the commonersThese participated in economic activities such as agriculture, crafts, hunting and fishing, construction and serfdom of the nobles. This last group was made up of almost the entire Totonac population.

Additionally, there was a part of Totonac society where the slaves, displaced and condemned who were commonly used as an offering for the religious sacrifices of this culture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *