Twenty years ago Nicholson concluded his doctoral dissertation on Quetzalcoatl and the Toltecs of central Mexico with this challenge:

From this brief and quite inadequate review, then, it is clear that, chronologically, the Toltec and Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl problems are still very far from solution. No two leading students seem to agree closely, a clear reflection of the contradictory nature of the evidence. The whole question needs a very intensive critical re-examination, utilizing all relevant evidence throughout Mesoamerica.

This is precisely the challenge which Nigel Davies accepts in his most recent book, The Toltecs. The book follows on the heels of his reconstruction of Mexica (Aztec) history, and the results of that prior study are used effectively as an interpretive backdrop for the present study.

Let it be said at the outset that Davies’ book is a masterful scholarly treatise on the subject of Toltec history. He is thorough in his coverage, and exhausts both the available documentary and archaeological sources. Cultural settings, such as late Teotihuacan, the “epiclassic” Gulf Coast and Yucatan, the classic and postclassic northern margins, and the postclassic Puebla valley are also extensively dealt with by Davies. The author has had the courage to diverge on many issues from the interpretations of earlier students of the Toltecs, and as a result, original contributions abound in this book. Any critical remarks below must be understood in the light of my overall high praise of the book.

Davies’ specific goals relate to historical questions about the Toltecs: What specific settlement was Tula (Tollan)? Was Quetzalcoatl a real person? What kind of empire did the Toltecs create? When did the events of Toltec history take place? More “cultural” themes form leitmotifs for Davies; for example, the probable irrigation basis of the Toltec economy, relations between political rule and religion, and the role of trade in empire building. Davies is also interested in the more general problem of integrating archaelogical and documentary sources. Indeed, he achieves one of the most fruitful and best informed syntheses of the two data sources that I have seen to date in Mesoamerican studies. His comments about correlations between ceramic distributions and political ties are particularly informative.

Despite the above mentioned concern with cultural problems, Davies’ consuming interest is in history, especially political history. This book becomes part of a growing historiographic controversy over the Toltecs. The list of historiographers includes such illustrious scholars as Wigberto Jiménez Moreno, Laurette Séjourné, Paul Kirchhoff, and H. B. Nicholson among others. I am reminded of biblical studies, where exegetical writings tend to proliferate at the expense of the primary documents themselves, and interpretation ends up leaving almost nothing historical. That is Davies’ tendency with respect to Toltec history. He casts doubt on most of the assertions found scattered in the documents: the founding of Tollan by Mixcoati, the climactic reign of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, most chronology associated with Tollan and its rulers, Topiltzin’s exodus to the east, and the rival kingdom of the Olmeca-Xicallanca. Nicholson’s thesis, also based on the primary sources, leaves much more of Toltec history intact, and provides a useful counterweight to Davies’ interpretations. (Unfortunately, Davies does not appear to have critically studied this valuable source.)

As Davies himself admits, historical questions lend themselves to differing interpretations. Apart from minor points over which I would disagree with Davies, I give the following as my list of at least questionable interpretations: that Tamoanchan can be identified with Teotihuacan and its environs, and that references to it refer to the fall of that great center (p. 92); that there was an early Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan, who may have been the historical basis of the later cult (p. 98); that there were two, clearly distinct ethnic groups in conflict at Tollan, the Nonoalcas and Tolteca-Chichimeca (pp. 160-171); that Chichen Itza in its Toltec phase was relatively autonomous of Tollan, and the creator of much Toltec art (pp. 220-226); that the Toltec “empire” was confined to the central Mexican area, and did not include provinces on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere (pp. 312-345); that Toltec dynastic dates refer only to the last phase of history, post-1100 A.D. (chapter 8, appendix B).

Davies makes no claim that all of his interpretations are correct, but only that they are the best he is able to give. While one may disagree with some of them, they certainly represent a high level of intellectual achievement. There can be no doubt that they will “provoke others to seek to improve upon . . . (his) efforts” (p. xv).