Pyramid of the Niches in El Tajín
The earliest human settlements in the area date back to about 2000 BCE with agriculture practiced early with those communities on the coast having seafood prominent in the diet, especially mollusks. The area thrived with many small villages and ceremonial center because of abundant agricultural production. The beginning of the Classic period around 300BCE brought great changes to the region as it became part of an important trade route between Teotihuacan and the Mayas. Evidence of Teotihuacan influence become evident including religion and architecture.
The name “Totonacapan” is from the Totonac people (+ “pan” meaning “place”), who probably arrived to the area between the 8th and 9th centuries. It was populated by other cultures before this, which have since been lost. It is not known how the Totonacs came to occupy and dominate the region, and there are several theories, some of which point to links with Teotihuacan and/or a migration from the interior towards the Gulf coast. Their main archeological sites include El Tajín, Cempoala and Yohualichan (in the Sierra Norte de Puebla). El Tajín is considered crucial to Totonac identity. The territory originally extended from the Papaloapan River in the south to the Cazones River in the north, the Gulf of Mexico on the east and into the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains to the west into what is now the Sierra Norte de Puebla and perhaps even as far as Tulancingo. However, these western areas had become ethnically mixed due to influxes of Nahuas and Otomis long before the Spanish arrived.
19th century Carl Nebel lithograph of people from Totonacapan
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the region was dominated by the Totonacs, who were then in turn dominated by the Aztec Empire. Because of this, the Totonacs allied with the Spanish against the Aztecs to conquer Tenochtitlán . However, war, disease and forced labor brought the Totonac population down drastically. The Totonac population in Cempoala is estimated to have been about 80,000 when the Spanish arrived in 1519 but with only eighty left in 1550. The Spanish also took their lands for cattle raising until the ethnicity occupied only about half of what it used to. In many areas, the Totonac population was replaced by Spanish, mestizo and African peoples. Until the 17th century, the Spanish mostly respected Totonac leadership as their help against the Aztec made them non-threatening militarily. Evangelization was likewise slow, with only sixteen parishes in all of Totonacapan by 1750.
This means that until 1750, the political and social situation in Totonacapan was relatively stable. However, from this time to the present various political, social and economic developments have served to weaken and split Totonac control over its historical territory. Mestizos began to take indigenous land and felt sufficiently powerful enough to begin taking political and military power. From 1750 to 1820, there were a series of Totonac revolts against these incursions, especially in the Papantla and Orizaba regions. This rebellion caused the Totonacs to ally with the cause for independence early, led by
Serafín Olarte, but they were crushed by royalist forces.
The struggle continued after Independence with a new insurrection led by Olarte’s son, Mariano Olarte with the flash point being the prohibition of Totonac Holy Week rites, which the Puebla diocese deemed “too pagan.” The first president of Mexico, Guadalupe Victoria, who had fought with Serafín Olarte, mediated the dispute but was unable to get the diocese to relent. The rebellions by the Totonac spurred mestizo and Spanish authorities into a series of moves that resulted in the splitting of historical Totonacapan mostly between the modern states of Veracruz and Puebla, with some small areas now part of Hidalgo over the course of the 19th century. Borders fluctuated over this time but were set by the beginning of Mexican Revolution.
The mestizos, meanwhile, were privatizing communally held land, confiscating religious property and prohibiting public worship to weaken the power of indigenous authorities. The Totonacs had some luck in turning the tide during the Mexican Revolution but these gains were lost in the 1930s. The process of dividing Totonacapan into various smaller entities politically and economically continued through the 20th century. One development was the construction of the Mexico City-Tuxpan highway and the development of petroleum extraction in the Poza Rica area. The Teziutlán-Tlatlauquitepec highway to Tenampulco reinforced a Veracruz/Puebla border.
While there is still a very population of Totonacs in both states, as Mexico’s tenth largest indigenous group, today, what is called Totonacapan is only a fraction of former Totonac lands. It refers to a region in Veracruz, which is made up of fifteen municipalities: Cazones de Herrera,
Coahuitlán, Coatzintla, Coyutla, Chumatlan, Espinal, Filomeno Mata, Gutiérrez Zamora, Mecatlán, Papantla, Poza Rica de Hidalgo, Tecolutla, Tihuatlán and Zozocolco de Hidalgo . The Totonac population continues to decline in both states, especially since the 1980s with many migrating out due to the poor economy of the region. History has put pressure on the Totonac language, with speakers switching over to Spanish and in some cases, to Nahuatl even though those who change language still consider themselves Totonac.