Teotihuacán is an ancient Mesoamerican city located in a sub valley of the Valley of Mexico, located 40 km northeast of Mexico City. Teotihuacan is known as the site of many of the most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids built in the pre-Columbian Americas.
At its zenith, perhaps in the first half of the 1st millennium CE, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population estimated at 125,000 or more, making it at least the sixth-largest city in the world during its epoch.
Apart from the pyramids, Teotihuacan is also anthropologically significant for its complex, multi-family residential compounds, the Avenue of the Dead, and the small portion of its vibrant murals that have been exceptionally well-preserved.
Additionally, Teotihuacan exported fine obsidian tools that garnered high prestige and widespread usage throughout Mesoamerica.
The city is thought to have been established around 100 BCE, with major monuments continuously under construction until about 250 CE. The city may have lasted until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries CE, but its major monuments were sacked and systematically burned around 550 CE.
Teotihuacan began as a new religious center in the Mexican Highlands around the first century CE. This city came to be the largest and most populated center in the pre-Columbian Americas.
Teotihuacan was even home to multi-floor apartment compounds built to accommodate this large population. The term Teotihuacan (or Teotihuacano) is also used for the whole civilization and cultural complex associated with the site.
Although it is a subject of debate whether Teotihuacan was the center of a state empire, its influence throughout Mesoamerica is well documented, and evidence of Teotihuacano presence can be seen at numerous sites in Veracruz and the Maya region.
The later Aztecs saw these magnificent ruins and claimed a common ancestry with the Teotihuacanos, modifying and adopting aspects of their culture. The ethnicity of the inhabitants of Teotihuacan is also a subject of debate.
Possible candidates are the Nahua, Otomi, or Totonac, ethnic groups. Scholars have also suggested that Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic state.
The city and the archaeological site are located in what is now the San Juan Teotihuacán municipality, approximately 40 km northeast of Mexico City. The site covers a total surface area of 83 square km and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
This place has been captivating people for many years. Teotihuacan is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.
The name Teōtīhuacān was given by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs centuries after the fall of the city around 550 CE. The term has been glossed as “birthplace of the gods”, or “place where gods were born”, reflecting Nahua creation myths that were said to occur in Teotihuacan.
Nahuatl scholar Thelma D. Sullivan interprets the name as the “place of those who have the road of the gods.” This is because the Aztecs believed that the gods created the universe at that site.
The name is pronounced as “teotiwákan” in the Nahuatl language. By normal Nahuatl orthographic conventions, a written accent would not appear in that position. Both this pronunciation and Spanish pronunciation – “teotiwakán” – are used.
The original name of the city is unknown, but it appears in hieroglyphic texts from the Maya region as Puh (“place of reeds”).
This suggests that, in the Maya civilization of the Classic period, Teotihuacan was understood as a Place of Reeds similar to other Postclassic Central Mexican settlements that took the name of Tollan, such as Tula-Hidalgo and Cholula.
This naming convention led to much confusion in the early 20th century, as scholars debated whether Teotihuacan or Tula-Hidalgo was the Tollan described by 16th-century chronicles. It now seems clear that Tollan may be understood as a generic Nahua term applied to any large settlement.
In the Mesoamerican concept of urbanism, Tollan and other language equivalents serve as a metaphor, linking the bundles of reeds and rushes that formed part of the lacustrine environment of the Valley of Mexico and the large gathering of people in a city.
Origins and foundation of Teotihuacan
The early history of Teotihuacan is quite mysterious, and the origin of its founders is uncertain.
Around 300 BCE, people of the central and southeastern areas of Mesoamerica began to gather into larger settlements. Teotihuacan was the largest urban center of Mesoamerica before the Aztecs, almost 1000 years prior to their epoch.
The city was already in ruins by the time of the Aztecs. For many years, archaeologists believed it was built by the Toltec. This belief was based on colonial period texts, such as the Florentine Codex, which attributed the site to the Toltecs.
However, the Nahuatl word “Toltec” generally means “craftsman of the highest level” and may not always refer to the Toltec civilization centered at Tula, Hidalgo. Since Toltec civilization flourished centuries after Teotihuacan, the people could not have been the city’s founders.
In the Late Formative era, a number of urban centers arose in central Mexico. The most prominent of these appears to have been Cuicuilco, on the southern shore of Lake Texcoco.
Scholars have speculated that the eruption of the Xitle volcano may have prompted a mass emigration out of the central valley and into the Teotihuacan valley. These settlers may have founded or accelerated the growth of Teotihuacan.
Other scholars have put forth the Totonac people as the founders of Teotihuacan. There is evidence that at least some of the people living in Teotihuacan immigrated from those areas influenced by the Teotihuacano civilization, including the Zapotec, Mixtec, and Maya peoples.
The builders of Teotihuacan took advantage of the geography in the Basin of Mexico. From the swampy ground, they constructed raised beds, called chinampas. Creating high agricultural productivity despite old methods of cultivation.
This allowed for the formation of channels, and subsequently canoe traffic, to transport food from farms around the city. The earliest buildings at Teotihuacan date to about 200 BCE. The largest pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun, was completed by 100 CE.
Year 378: “Conquest” of Tikal
In January 378, while Spearthrower Owl supposedly ruled in Teotihuacan, the warlord Siyah K’ak’ “conquered” Tikal, removing and replacing the Maya king, with support from El Peru and Naachtun, as recorded by Stela 31 at Tikal and other monuments in the Maya region.
In 378 a group of Teotihuacanos organized a coup d’etat in Tikal, Guatemala.
This was not the Teotihuacan state, it was a group of the Feathered-Serpent people, thrown out of the city. The Feathered-Serpent Pyramid was burnt, all the sculptures were torn from the temple, and another platform was built to efface the facade.
Year 426: “Conquest” of Copán and Quiriguá
In 426, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ takes over as king of Copán in present-day Honduras, as described by Copán Altar Q. Soon thereafter, Yax K’uk’ Mo’ installs Tok Casper as king of Quiriguá, about 50 km north of Copán.
Zenith of Teotihuacan
The city reached its peak in CE 450 when it was the center of a powerful culture whose influence extended through much of the Mesoamerican region. At its peak, the city covered over 30 km², and housed a population of 150,000 people, with one estimate reaching as high as 250,000.
Various districts in the city housed people from across the Teotihuacano region of influence, which spread south as far as Guatemala.
Notably absent from the city are fortifications and military structures.
The nature of political and cultural interactions between Teotihuacan and the centers of the Maya region (as well as elsewhere in Mesoamerica) has been a long-standing and significant area for debate.
Substantial exchange and interaction occurred over the centuries from the Terminal Preclassic to the Mid-Classic period. “Teotihuacan-inspired ideologies” and motifs persisted at Maya centers into the Late Classic, long after Teotihuacan itself had declined.
However, scholars debate the extent and degree of Teotihuacano influence. Some believe that it had direct and militaristic dominance; others that the adoption of “foreign” traits was part of a selective, conscious, and bi-directional cultural diffusion.
New discoveries have suggested that Teotihuacan was not much different in its interactions with other centers from the later empires, such as the Toltecs and Aztecs.
It is believed that Teotihuacan had a major influence on the Preclassic and Classic Maya, most likely by conquering several Maya centers and regions, including Tikal and the region of Peten, and influencing Maya culture.
Architectural styles prominent at Teotihuacan are found widely dispersed at a number of distant Mesoamerican sites, which some researchers have interpreted as evidence for Teotihuacan’s far-reaching interactions and political or militaristic dominance.
A style particularly associated with Teotihuacan is known as talud-tablero, in which an inwards-sloping external side of a structure (talud) is surmounted by a rectangular panel (tablero).
Variants of the generic style are found in a number of Maya region sites, including Tikal, Kaminaljuyu, Copan, Becan, and Oxkintok, and particularly in the Petén Basin and the central Guatemalan highlands.
The talud-tablero style pre-dates its earliest appearance at Teotihuacan in the Early Classic period; it appears to have originated in the Tlaxcala-Puebla region during the Preclassic.
Analyses have traced the development into local variants of the talud-tablero style at sites such as Tikal, where its use precedes the 5th-century appearance of iconographic motifs shared with Teotihuacan.
The talud-tablero style was disseminated through Mesoamerica generally from the end of the Preclassic period, and not specifically, or solely, via Teotihuacano influence. It is unclear how or from where the style spread into the Maya region.
The city was a center of industry, home to many potters, jewelers, and craftsmen. Teotihuacan is known for producing a great number of obsidian artifacts. No ancient Teotihuacano non-ideographic texts are known to exist (or known to have existed).
Inscriptions from Maya cities show that Teotihuacan nobility traveled to, and perhaps conquered, local rulers as far away as Honduras.
Maya inscriptions note an individual nicknamed by scholars as “Spearthrower Owl”, apparently ruler of Teotihuacan, who reigned for over 60 years and installed his relatives as rulers of Tikal and Uaxactun in Guatemala.
Scholars have based interpretations of the culture at Teotihuacan on archaeology, the murals that adorn the site, and hieroglyphic inscriptions made by the Maya describing their encounters with Teotihuacano conquerors.
The creation of murals, perhaps tens of thousands of murals, reached its height between 450 and 650. The artistry of the painters was unrivaled in Mesoamerica and has been compared with that of painters in Renaissance Florence, Italy.
Collapse of Teotihuacan
Scholars had thought that invaders attacked the city in the 7th or 8th century, sacking and burning it. More recent evidence, however, seems to indicate that the burning was limited to the structures and dwellings associated primarily with the ruling class.
Some think this suggests that the burning was from an internal uprising. They say the invasion theory is flawed because early archaeological work on the city was focused exclusively on the palaces and temples, places used by the upper classes.
Because all of these sites showed burning, archaeologists concluded that the whole city was burned. Instead, it is now known that the destruction was centered on major civic structures along the Avenue of the Dead.
Some statues seem to have been destroyed methodically, with their fragments dispersed.
Evidence for population decline beginning around the 6th century lends some support to the internal unrest hypothesis. The decline of Teotihuacan has been correlated to lengthy droughts related to the climate changes of 535–536.
This theory of ecological decline is supported by archaeological remains that show a rise in the percentage of juvenile skeletons with evidence of malnutrition during the 6th century.
This finding does not conflict with either of the above theories, since both increased warfare and internal unrest can also be effects of a general period of drought and famine.
Other nearby centers such as Cholula, Xochicalco, and Cacaxtla competed to fill the power void left by Teotihuacan’s decline. They may have aligned themselves against Teotihuacan to reduce its influence and power.
The art and architecture at these sites emulate Teotihuacan forms, but also demonstrate an eclectic mix of motifs and iconography from other parts of Mesoamerica, particularly the Maya region.
The sudden destruction of Teotihuacan is not uncommon for Mesoamerican city-states of the Classic and Epi-Classic periods.
Many Maya states suffered similar fates in the coming centuries, a series of events often referred to as the Classic Maya collapse. Nearby in the Morelos valley, Xochicalco was sacked and burned in 900 and Tula met a similar fate around 1150.
There is a theory that the collapse of Teotihuacan was caused by its agriculture being devastated by the CE 535 eruption of the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic city, with distinct quarters occupied by Otomi, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, and Nahua peoples. The Totonacs have always maintained that they were the ones who built it.
The Aztecs repeated that story, but it has not been corroborated by archaeological findings. In 2001, Terrence Kaufman presented linguistic evidence suggesting that an important ethnic group in Teotihuacan was of Totonacan or Mixe–Zoquean linguistic affiliation.
He uses this to explain general influences from Totonacan and Mixe–Zoquean languages in many other Mesoamerican languages, whose people did not have any known history of contact with either of the above-mentioned groups.
Other scholars maintain that the largest population group must have been of Otomi ethnicity because the Otomi language is known to have been spoken in the area around Teotihuacan both before and after the Classic period and not during the middle period.
In their landmark 1992 volume, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, Miller, and Taube list eight deities:
- The Storm God
- The Great Goddess
- The Feathered Serpent. An important deity in Teotihuacan; most closely associated with the Feathered Serpent Pyramid
- The Old God
- The War Serpent. Taube has differentiated two different serpent deities whose depictions alternate on the Feathered Serpent Pyramid: the Feathered Serpent and what he calls the “War Serpent”. Other researchers are more skeptical
- The Netted Jaguar
- The Pulque God
- The Fat God. Known primarily from figurines and so assumed to be related to household rituals
Esther Pasztory adds one more:
- The Flayed God. Known primarily from figurines and so assumed to be related to household rituals
The consensus among scholars is that the primary deity of Teotihuacan was the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan. The dominant civic architecture is the pyramid. Politics were based on the state religion; religious leaders were the political leaders.
Teotihuacanos practiced human sacrifice: human bodies and animal sacrifices have been found during excavations of the pyramids at Teotihuacan. Scholars believe that the people offered human sacrifices as part of a dedication when buildings were expanded or constructed.
The victims were probably enemy warriors captured in battle and brought to the city for ritual sacrifice to ensure the city could prosper. Some men were decapitated, some had their hearts removed, others were killed by being hit several times over the head, and some were buried alive.
Animals that were considered sacred and represented mythical powers and the military were also buried alive, imprisoned in cages: cougars, a wolf, eagles, a falcon, an owl, and even venomous snakes.
Numerous stone masks have been found at Teotihuacan, and have been generally believed to have been used during a funerary context, although some scholars call this into question, noting that masks “do not seem to have come from burials”.
Teotihuacan was a mix of residential and work areas. Upper-class homes were usually compounds that housed many such families, and one compound was found that was capable of housing between sixty and eighty families.
Such superior residences were typically made of plaster, each wall in every section elaborately decorated with murals. These compounds or apartment complexes were typically found within the city center.
The vast lakes of the Basin of Mexico provided the opportunity for people living around them to construct productive raised beds, or chinampas, from swampy muck, construction that also produced channels between the beds.
Different sections of the city housed particular ethnic groups and immigrants. Typically, these sections of the city were speaking multiple languages.
Knowledge of the huge ruins of Teotihuacan was never completely lost. After the fall of the city, various squatters lived on the site. During Aztec times, the city was a place of pilgrimage and identified with the myth of Tollan, the place where the sun was created.
In the late 17th century Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645–1700) made some excavations around the Pyramid of the Sun. Minor archaeological excavations were conducted in the 19th century.
In 1905 Mexican archaeologist and government official in the regime of Porfirio Díaz Leopoldo Batres led a major project of excavation and restoration. The Pyramid of the Sun was restored to celebrate the centennial of the Mexican War of Independence in 1910.
The site of Teotihuacan was the first to be expropriated for the national patrimony under the Law of Monuments (1897), giving jurisdiction under legislation for the Mexican state to take control. Some 250 plots were farmed on the site.
Peasants who had been farming portions were ordered to leave and the Mexican government eventually paid some compensation to those individuals. A feeder train line was built to the site in 1908, which allowed for the efficient hauling of material from the excavations and later brought tourists to the site.
In 1910, the International Congress of Americanists met in Mexico, coinciding with the centennial celebrations, and the distinguished delegates, such as its president Eduard Seler and vice president Franz Boas were taken to the newly finished excavations.
Further excavations at the Ciudadela were carried out in the 1920s, supervised by Manuel Gamio. Other sections of the site were excavated in the 1940s and 1950s. The first site-wide project of restoration and excavation was carried out by INAH from 1960 to 1965, supervised by Jorge Acosta.
This undertaking had the goals of clearing the Avenue of the Dead, consolidating the structures facing it, and excavating the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl.
During the installation of a “sound and light” show in 1971, workers discovered the entrance to a tunnel and cave system underneath the Pyramid of the Sun. Although scholars long thought this to be a natural cave, more recent examinations have established the tunnel was entirely manmade.
The interior of the Pyramid of the Sun has never been fully excavated.
In 1980-82, another major program of excavation and restoration was carried out at the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent and the Avenue of the Dead complex. Most recently, a series of excavations at the Pyramid of the Moon have greatly expanded evidence of cultural practices.
In 2005, a three hundred and the thirty-foot-long tunnel was discovered underneath the pyramid after rainfall uncovered an entrance adjacent to it. Several side-chambers were also discovered.
The tunnel and chambers were explored in 2013 with a remote control robot named Tlaloc II-TC, supervised by archaeologist Sergio Gómez Chávez, the director of the Tlalocan Project.
In one of the side chambers, the robot discovered strange Yellow spheres of Teotihuacan made of a core of clay covered in Jarosite formed by oxidation of pyrite. It is suggested the spheres were once metallic and would have shone with a brilliant luster.
They are indeed unique, but no one has an idea what they mean. Other finds in the underground section of the pyramid included masks covered in crystals such as quartz and jade along with pottery dating from around CE 100.
The team continues to explore further into the tunnel, encouraged by these promising results.
In November 2014 “large quantities” of mercury were discovered in a chamber 60 feet below the 1800-year-old pyramid known as the “Temple of the Feathered Serpent” along with jade statues, jaguar remains, and a box filled with carved shells, and rubber balls.
The city’s broad central avenue, called “Avenue of the Dead” (a translation from its Nahuatl name Miccoatli), is flanked by impressive ceremonial architecture, including the immense Pyramid of the Sun, the third-largest pyramid in the World (after the Great Pyramid of Cholula and the Great Pyramid of Giza).
Along the Avenue of the Dead are many smaller talud-tablero platforms. The Aztecs believed they were tombs, inspiring the name of the avenue. Scholars have now established that these were ceremonial platforms that were topped with temples.
Further down the Avenue of the Dead is the area known as the Citadel, containing the ruined Temple of the Feathered Serpent. This area was a large plaza surrounded by temples that formed the religious and political center of the city.
The name “Citadel” was given to it by the Spanish, who believed it was a fort. Most of the common people lived in large apartment buildings spread across the city. Many of the buildings contained workshops where artisans produced pottery and other goods.
The geographical layout of Teotihuacan is a good example of the Mesoamerican tradition of planning cities, settlements, and buildings as a representation of the view of the Universe. Its urban grid is aligned to precisely 15.5º east of North.
One theory says this is due to the fact that the sun rose at that same angle during the same summer day each year. Settlers used the alignment to calibrate their sense of time or as a marker for planting crops or performing certain rituals.
Another theory is that there are numerous ancient sites in Mesoamerica that seem to be oriented with the tallest mountain in their given area.
This appears to be the case at Teotihuacan, although the mountain to which it is oriented is not visible from within the Teotihuacan complex due to a closer mountain ridge.
Pecked-cross circles throughout the city and in the surrounding regions indicate how the people managed to maintain the urban grid over long distances. It also enabled them to orient the Pyramids to the distant mountain that was out of sight.
The Ciudadela was completed during the Miccaotli phase, and the Pyramid of the Sun underwent a complex series of additions and renovations. The Great Compound was constructed across the Avenue of the Dead, west of Ciudadela.
This was probably the city’s marketplace. The existence of a large market in an urban center of this size is strong evidence of state organization. Teotihuacan was at that point simply too large and too complex to have been politically viable as a chiefdom.
The Ciudadela is a great enclosed compound capable of holding 100,000 people. About 700,000 cubic meters (yards) of material were used to construct its buildings. Its central feature is the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, which was flanked by upper-class apartments.
The entire compound was designed to overwhelm visitors.
The archaeological site is under threat from development pressures. In 2004 Wal-Mart was given permission to build a large store in the third archaeological zone of the park. Priceless artifacts uncovered during store construction were reportedly trucked off to a local dump.
Later, Teotihuacan has become the center of controversy over Resplandor Teotihuacano (“Teotihuacan Glow“). This massive light and sound spectacular installed to create a nighttime show for tourists.
A large number of perforations for the project have caused fractures in stones and irreversible damage.
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