Postclassic Period of Mesoamerica

Postclassic Period of Mesoamerica
Postclassic Period of Mesoamerica

Postclassic Mesoamerica (900–1500 c.e.) encompassed four principal geographic regions: the Maya zones to the south and east; the central highlands, centered on the Basin of Mexico; the Zapotecs of the Oaxaca Valley; and the Mixtec polities in the region north and west of Oaxaca. Sometimes called “The Time of Troubles,” the Postclassic period in these regions was characterized by several broad and overlapping trends.

The most important were political fragmentation and the rise and decline of new polities; a heightened emphasis on militarism, aggression, and violence, accompanied by the political supremacy of an ascendant class of warrior elites; the institutionalization of the practice of human sacrifice; increased movements and migrations of peoples; and the disruption and reconfiguration of regional and long-distance trade and commercial networks.


In the Basin of Mexico and the central highlands, the Postclassic period was inaugurated by the decline and collapse of the great city of Teotihuacán around 650; the expansion and contraction of the city-states of Cholula, Xochicalco, and El Tajín; and the subsequent political fragmentation of the region into numerous competing city-states. Around 900 another polity saw a rapid rise to prominence in the central highlands: the Toltecs.

Originating somewhere in the northern deserts, probably around the present-day Mexican state of Zacatecas, the Toltecs were but one of several waves of migrants from the arid northern regions to whom the settled peoples of the central highlands applied the generic name Chichimeca, meaning “lineage of the dog” and connoting both their martial skill and their “barbarism.” The later Aztecs would also be called Chichimeca.

According to Toltec legend, their semidivine founder Mixcóatl (Cloud Serpent) swiftly defeated his adversaries in his inexorable march into the Basin of Mexico, where he established a capital city at Culhuacán.

Mixcóatl’s brother then treacherously assassinated him, after which his pregnant widow fled into exile, where she bore his son, whom she named Ce Acatl Topiltzín (Prince One Reed). As a boy, Topiltzín became a devout follower of Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent), the principal deity of the former great city of Teotihuacán.

Topiltzín took on Quetzalcoatl’s name to become Topiltzín-Quetzalcoatl; the man-hero slew his uncle (his father’s assassin) and around the year 968 founded a new city in the northern section of the Basin of Mexico, Tula, which would become the capital of the Toltecs.

Topiltzín-Quetzalcoatl, in turn, became the font of all the stunning achievements of the Toltecs, including the cultivation of maize, the invention of writing, the introduction of the ritual calendar, and all of the other attributes of the Toltec civilization.

Meanwhile a power struggle emerged within the Toltec capital of Tula between devotees of the two principal rival gods, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror).

Maya Civilization

The latter craftily tricked Topiltzín-Quetzalcoatl into engaging in an incestuous relationship with his sister and forced him into exile in consequence of this disgrace, first to Cholula and then into the Maya region. In this way, according to legend, Tezcatlipoca became the preeminent god of the Toltecs.

A capricious, whimsical deity who reveled in exposing the frailties and pretensions of human beings, Tezcatlipoca was said to require for his propitiation ritual human sacrifice. This is how, according to legend, the practice of human sacrifice arose among the Toltecs.

It is more likely that, as among other polities before and after, ritual human sacrifice emerged as a way for the Toltec ruling classes, particularly its warrior elite, to legitimate and consolidate their dominion and to strike fear into their actual and potential enemies.

The Toltecs ruled a substantial portion of the Basin of Mexico until the mid-1100s, when a combination of drought, famine, and endemic warfare fatally weakened the still-forming polity. By the mid-1100s they had abandoned their capital city of Tula, which became the site from which the later Aztecs claimed direct lineage.


Among the Zapotec-speaking peoples of the Valley of Oaxaca, the decline of Monte Albán between 700 and 900 (the terminal phase of Monte Albán IIIb and the beginning of Phase IV) was followed by political fragmentation and the rise of numerous competing polities.

Among the most prominent of these was centered at the ceremonial complex of Mitla, southeast of Monte Albán, where construction began in the early- to mid-900s, around the same time as Tula to the north and west.

The ruins at Mitla have long captured the imagination of archaeologists and visitors, with their elegant lines, precision stonework, and complex geometric ornamentation.

While the palaces and courtyards of Mitla were built in an open area, a nearby fortress testifies to the heightened militarism that characterized the Oaxaca Valley polities long after the site of Monte Albán itself had been largely abandoned and become mainly a site for pilgrimage and ritual.

Scholars have yet to decipher the Zapotec inscriptions that grace the ruins of Monte Albán and other sites in the Oaxaca Valley. It is hypothesized that specific hand gestures represent verbs; that noncalendric glyphs were intended to convey information regarding political, military, and ritual affairs; and that as-yet undiscovered connections exist among Mayan, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Aztec writing systems. Investigations into these and related arenas of Zapotec history continue.


The mountainous zones lying north and west of the Valley of Oaxaca were home to numerous Mixtec (Cloud People) polities that emerged during the Postclassic period.

By the 1200s these Mixtec states had extended their influence south and east into areas traditionally controlled by the Zapotecs—including periodic occupations of Monte Albán and Mitla. The Postclassic Mixtec developed one of the most extreme systems of social stratification in all of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

While all Mesoamerican polities placed a high degree of emphasis on purity of lineage, birth order, and elite status, these attributes were especially salient among the Postclassic Mixtec.

For instance inscriptions record at least four cases of full brother-sister marriage among the descendents of the Mixtec lord named Eight Deer— an evident effort to retain purity of lineage.

Among both the Mixtec and Zapotec Postclassic polities, there was little of the elaborate administrative and bureaucratic hierarchy that characterized other states during this period, including the Aztecs. Instead the word of the ruling lord was deemed law, carried out by a second tier of elite lords who ruled subject polities under the main lord’s dominion.

The Aztec state, which emerged in the Basin of Mexico during the middle of the Postclassic period, exhibited all of the principal features characterizing the Postclassic polities of the central and southern highlands, particularly the heightened emphasis on militarism, warfare, human sacrifice, and conquest of lesser polities in the formation of a tributary empire.