The history of the native peoples of the state of Veracruz is complex. In the pre-Columbian period, the modern-day state of Veracruz was inhabited primarily by four indigenous cultures. The Huastecs and Otomis occupied the north, while the Totonacs resided in the north-center. The Olmecs, one of the oldest cultures in the Americas, became dominant in the southern part of Veracruz. Remains of these past civilizations can be found in archeological sites such as Pánuco, Castillo de Teayo, El Zapotal, Las Higueras, Quiahuiztlán, El Tajín, Cempoala, Tres Zapotes and San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán.
The first major civilization in the territory of the current state was that of the Olmecs. The Olmecs lived in the Coatzacoalcos River region and it became the center of Olmec culture. The main ceremonial center here was San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. Other major centers in the state include Tres Zapotes in the city of Veracruz and La Venta in Tabasco. The culture reached its height about 2600 years ago, with its best-known artistic expression being the colossal stone heads. These ceremonial sites were the most complex of that early time period. For this reason, many anthropologists consider the Olmec civilization to be the mother culture of the many Mesoamerican cultures that followed it. By 300 BCE, this culture was eclipsed by other emerging civilizations in Mesoamerica.
Another major group was the Totonacs, who have survived to the present day. Their region, called Totonacapan, is centered between the Cazones River and the Papaloapan River in the north of the state. Pre-Columbian Totonacs lived from hunting, fishing and agriculture, mostly of corn, beans, chili peppers and squash. This is also the native region of the vanilla bean. Clay sculptures with smiling faces are indicative of this culture. The major site is El Tajín, located near Papantla, but the culture reached its apogee in Cempoala (about five miles (8 km) inland from the current port of Veracruz), when it was conquered by the Aztecs. When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, the territory was still home to a population of about 250,000 people living in fifty population centers and speaking four Totonac dialects. 25,000 were living in Cempoala alone.
The Huastecs are in the far north of the Veracruz and extend into parts of Tamaulipas, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro and Puebla. The language and agricultural techniques of these people and the Maya are similar; however, only a few buildings and ceramics remain from the early Huastec culture. This culture also reached its peak between 1200 and 1519, when it was conquered by the Spanish.
During the 15th and very early 16th century, the Aztecs came to dominate much of the state and dividing it into tributary provinces, of Tochtepec, Cuetlaxtlan, Cempoallan, Quauhtochco, Jalapa, Misantla, and Tlatlauhquitepec. The Aztecs were interested in the area’s vegetation and crops such as cedars, fruit, cotton, cacao, corn, beans and vanilla. However, the Totonacs chafed under Aztec rule, with Aztec rulers from Axayacatl to Moctezuma II having to send soldiers to quell rebellions. The Huastecs were subjugated more successfully by the Aztecs and relegated to the provinces of Atlan and Tochpan.