Neither the prehistory nor the history of the Huasteca is well known. A number of archaeological sites have been explored, and from these it appears that the earliest identifiable people to occupy the region were Huastec speakers. At the time of the Spanish invasion, the Huastec were struggling against Mexica expansion in their region.
Sometime probably during the late pre-Hispanic era, groups of Nahua, along with Otomí and Tepehua, migrated into the Huasteca. Ethnohistorical sources indicate that the first Nahua to settle on the Gulf Coast may have been refugees from the highlands escaping a great famine during the mid-1450s. Other sources mention that Motecuhtzoma II sent colonists to the coast to repopulate the area following a series of epidemics there. Documents record a number of military invasions launched by the Mexica and their allies. Archaeological evidence confirms a Mexica presence in the southern Huasteca; the best-known site is Castillo de Teayo. This ruin has not been excavated, nor even surveyed. It features a pyramid, ceramics, and at least fifty-two sculptures, all purportedly of Mexica origin. Dates for the site are uncertain, but the late fifteenth century seems reasonable. Based upon the few ethnographie studies conducted among the Nahua of the Huasteca, Nahua culture is linked to that of the highland peoples. Many rituals, deities, and beliefs, for example, are similar to those reported by sixteenth-century chroniclers of the Mexica. Nahua from more western regions of the Huasteca may originally have been part of the Aculhuacán Empire; they have remained largely independent of the Mexica.
During the colonial period, the Nahua of the Huasteca, along with most Native Americans in Mexico, experienced a cataclysmic decline in population owing to social disruption, forced labor, and disease. The scattered remnants of the population caused difficulties for Spanish administrators, who instituted a policy of establishing reducciones (areas where indigenous peoples were forced to settle) as early as 1592 in the southern Huasteca. These centralized locales were also known as congregaciones (congregations). Many contemporary Nahua communities are products of these colonial programs. Spanish missionary work began in the Huasteca prior to 1630, spearheaded by the Franciscans. Despite long exposure to missionaries, the southern Huasteca remains a conservative stronghold of pre-Hispanic religious beliefs and practices.
The Nahua areas of the Huasteca played an active part in the Mexican War of Independence in the early nineteenth century. Many people, probably including the Nahua, also participated in the war against France in the late 1860s and in the Mexican Revolution in the early part of the twentieth century. The Revolution brought land reform and the establishment of the ejido system, which effectively redistributed private land to many Native American communities, including some Nahua.
In 1901 the first government concessions were granted to oil companies to exploit reserves in the southern Huasteca. This development and other factors led to the building of roads into the interior and subsequent changes entailed by increased contact with urban Mexico. Prior to World War I, sugarcane was the major cash crop grown by people in the Huasteca. Following the war, people in the higher elevations, including many Nahua, began to grow coffee for the international market. Also during this time, cattle ranching became a lucrative business for people of the region. Most cattle ranches were owned by mestizos, but Nahua participated in production by acting as temporary laborers on ranches and, among the more affluent, by owning a few head of cattle that they raised in conjunction with their farming activities.
Population increases following World War II, along with economic and political instability, have caused a crisis for many Nahua farmers. Economic exploitation of small-scale village farmers and competition with cattle ranchers for arable land have led to a series of sometimes violent confrontations. Land invasions and military repression have given the Huasteca a reputation among urban Mexicans as being a lawless and dangerous region. Political crises, violence, and lack of economic opportunity have led increasing numbers of Nahua to leave the region and migrate to cities in search of employment. In 1992 the government of Mexico amended the land-reform laws established after the Revolution. It remains to be seen what effect this fundamental change in land tenure will have on Nahua of the Huasteca.