Despite an abundance of house and temple mounds throughout the region, there has been relatively little archaeological exploration in the Huasteca; however, excavations at Tamuin, in San Luis Potosí, and at Teayo, in Veracruz, among others, have produced examples of native architecture, mural paintings, sculpture, and pottery of Wasteko origin. The area near Tampico, particularly the land known as Pánuco, was heavily populated at the time of the Spanish Conquest.
According to the sixteenth-century Franciscan historian Sahagun, the Wasteko were distinguished by their tall, sloping foreheads (the result of head deformation); their tattooed skin; and their blackened, filed teeth. They were notorious for their male nudity, homosexual rituals, and indulgence in alcoholic pulque, which they drank and also administered as enemas. They wore colorful woven cloaks and nose ornaments and bracelets made from feathers, gold, jade, and turquoise. Warriors wore large metal bells and padded-cotton armor, and they were believed to wield powerful sorcery in battle. Their weapons included bows and arrows, throwing sticks, curved clubs, and, possibly, obsidian-edged swords. Aztec tribute lists show that the Wasteko traded cotton textiles, maize, deerskins, tropical fruits, and exotic birds. Other historical records indicate that the sixteenth-century Gulf-coastal forest cultures managed forest orchards as well as swidden agricultural plots and may have drained fields in swampy areas. Archaeological evidence of agriculture from this area has been dated to 1700 B . C .
At the time of the Conquest, the Wasteko were organized into independent territorial groups that engaged in wars under shifting alliances. On the Gulf Coast, Wasteko society included nobles, commoners, and, possibly, slaves. From the seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, the northern and coastal areas of the Huasteca were occupied by expanding haciendas, but small Indian communities also occupied refuges scattered in the forested foothills to the west. On the haciendas, Wasteko served as laborers in return for rights to use plots of land for raising their own food. In foothill settlements, they provided unpaid labor and tribute to the Catholic church.
Under Spanish domination, a major cultural distinction was drawn between mestizos (those who participated in the national, Spanish-derived culture, regardless of their genetic heritage) and indios (a pejorative term for indigenous people). In eighteenth-century censuses, Negroes and mulattoes were grouped with Spaniards, whereas Indians were considered a race apart. Although the Wasteko distinguish themselves from neighboring Nahua, Otomí, and Totonac, they recognize a more fundamental cultural difference between mestizos and indigenous peoples. Mexican government policy has consistently encouraged cultural assimilation of indigenous peoples through promotion of Spanish-language schools, incentives for concentration into townships, and other means.