Teotihuacán is the ancient pre-Columbian city in Mexico, about 30 miles northeast of present-day Mexico City, a famous site containing many early and historically significant Mesoamerican step pyramids. It’s also famous for being the city that was suddenly and inexplicably deserted, and due to lack of documentation we can’t really be sure why.
Since 2003, Mexican archaeologist Serigo Gomez and his team have been excavating a tunnel in Teotihuacán that, until now, had been sealed and undisturbed for nearly 2,000 years. They made their way into the tunnel, unearthing around 50,000 artifacts and relics in almost perfect condition in the process.
Given how exciting these finds are and what we stand to learn, I thought this would be a good chance to give a little history lesson in addition to discussing the significance of these incredible findings. There’s no denying that Teotihuacán has an allure, due as much to what we know as to what we don’t. However, there have been some deductions made after years of on-site study, so I’m also going to teach you a little bit about one of the most magnificent cultural heritage sites in the entire world.
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Where Gods are Born
The name Teotihuacán (“teh-oh-tee-wah-KHAN”) was given to the city by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztec when they discovered it after it was abandoned and means “the place where gods are born” because they thought the universe was created at the site of the city. Even the names of the monuments and temples come from the Aztecs, who named them according to their own beliefs when they came upon the impressive urban center not long after it was completely and suddenly abandoned. Due to the inhabitants not having any sort of writing system or means of recording their personal history very little is known for sure about the circumstances surrounding the first incarnation of Teotihuacán, and even its first inhabitants and rulers are very uncertain. Where they came from, what they believed, their language and even their culture are all very mysterious; all we know is what we can deduce from the ruins and murals of the city and glean from what nearby urban centers had recorded about their interactions with the people of Teotihuacán. It was initially believed that the Toltecs had built the city, but since they didn’t flourish until centuries after Teotihuacán was built, it couldn’t have been the Toltecs.
It’s commonly believed that when Xitle erupted sometime between 245 and 315 CE, this pushed many of the inhabitants of Late Formative cities of central Mexico, like Cuicuilco, into the Teotihuacán valley, which either started or accelerated the early development of the city. This would explain the archaeological evidence suggesting a mixture of different populations living in the city, including the Totonac, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Maya. The dates for the volcanic eruption also coincide with how the major monuments were likely completed circa 250 CE.
Epicenter of the Western World
Around the time that the Roman Empire reached its peak–roughly around 400 to 500 CE–Teotihuacán was at it’s zenith with today’s estimates putting the population somewhere between 150,000 at the low end and 250,000 at the high end. To put that into perspective, the population of Teotihuacán was somewhere between that of Alexandria, Virginia, and of Orlando, Florida, here in the United States. From what we can tell, it appears the city was split into eight separate districts, which suggests that the city’s inhabitants were a mixture of people from throughout central Mexico. It’s similar to how you might see a Chinatown or Little Italy in large cities today; people of a common cultural or ethnic background will tend to aggregate, or cluster, together. Birds of a feather, as they say. When you take a look at a city map (see image above right), you can kind of see how the eight districts were divided.
The architectural style of the structures at Teotihuacán are like that found throughout the region, which suggests either a wide cultural influence or inhabitants from many different areas. Notably absent from the city are any sort of fortifications and exterior walls. This was largely because the inhabitants were warriors. However, unlike many other warrior cultures of the time period, the inhabitants did not fight for land or for power; rather, they fought in order to take prisoners back to the city to be sacrificed.
As for political and trade relationships with other cities and peoples, it has long been debated whether the Teotihuacáns were influenced by other cultures, whether they were the ones who influenced other cultures, or whether it was both. There have been subtle traces of Teotihuacán motifs in structural embellishments throughout the entire region, both while the city was still occupied and for a period after its decline. There’s new evidence to suggest that the Teotihuacán weren’t much different than later inhabitants, like the Aztec with their heavy emphasis on sacrifice. They seem to have had a significant influence on the Preclassic and Classic Maya, likely due to having conquered several Maya centers like Tikal and the region of Peten, have thus having a direct influence on Maya culture.
Most of the interpretations of the Teotihuacán people come from scholars’ interpretations of their archaeology, the murals on the site, and hieroglyphic inscriptions by the Maya describing their encounters with Teotihuacán rulers. Evidence shows that Teotihuacán was an industrious city with many artisans, potters, jewelers, and craftsman. In particular, obsidian was used for many different things in Teotihuacán. Writing was ideographic rather than hieroglyphic, which means that their symbols expressed whole ideas or concepts rather than single words or phrases, and there are no non-ideographic texts from Teotihuacán known to exist. However, the Maya have written about Teotihuacán, and according to Maya records, Teotihuacán leaders traveled far and wide, perhaps even conquering rulers as far away as Honduras. Specifically, there are Maya inscriptions that reference a Teotihuacán ruler by the name of “Spearthrower Owl” who ruled Teotihuacán for over 60 years and installed his own relatives as rulers in Tikal and Uaxactun in Guatemala.
Collapse, Abandoned, Burned
Scholars debated for a long time as to what caused the inhabitants of Teotihuacán to suddenly just pick up and leave such a large, extensive city. One of the first theories was that they were invaded, and their invaders were the ones who burned the city to the ground. However, scientists noticed a pattern among the burned ruins; the sites that were burned were almost exclusively associated with the ruling class. With this, it’s now believed that the burning of certain parts of the city actually had something to do with an internal uprising of some sort, so the fires would’ve been set by inhabitants of the city in lower social and economic standing.
Recent excavations have found an influx of juvenile and infant births among some of the later populations of Teotihuacán inhabitants. Upon testing, it was found that the influx of young deaths was related to malnutrition, which complemented a more recent hypothesis to explain Teotihuacán’s abandonment. Scientists are beginning to believe that the city’s population had outgrown what the city and the natural resources of the region could support. The decline of Teotihuacán has also correlated with ecological changes in the area, especially severe droughts. The likelihood of this theory is lent further credence by the fact that periods of famine and hardship almost always coincide with periods of social upheaval, which could account for the burned remains. And with Teotihuacán weakening, all it would take is push from the military of other regional centers of power, like Cholula, Xochicalco, and Cacaxtla, and it becomes very reasonable that the city of Teotihuacán could completely die out.
It wasn’t uncommon for cities to die out in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. In fact, it happened quite frequently, especially with the Maya. However, it was the fact that Teotihuacán was such a large, important city with such a huge population that died with very little evidence left behind as to how it happened that made the case of Teotihuacán somewhat more unusual and mysterious.
The City of Teotihuacán
The layout of Teotihuacán is very distinct, deliberate, symbolic, and exemplifies a pre-Columbian political and ceremonial center. Carefully laid out in geometric patterns that correspond to the sun and stars in an ode to cosmic harmony, Teotihuacán covered about eight square miles in its heyday and boasts many impressive structures that seem to reflect the natural environment of the Teotihuacán Valley.
The main thoroughfare of Teotihuacán, called the Avenue of the Dead, has a north-south orientation, aligned to roughly 15.5º east of North, and is lined with a number of monuments, buildings, and temple complexes, many of which show evidence of having some mystical or religious significance to them. It appears they even rerouted the San Juan River to run perpendicular across the Avenue of the Dead at a right angle. The Pyramid of the Moon stands at the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead with the Pyramid of the Sun sitting about midway down the avenue on the eastern side. Spread around the Pyramid of the Moon are the Palaces of Quetzalmariposa, the Jaguars, of Yayahuala, among others; these would’ve been monuments of great political importance and is another reason to suggest advanced political infrastructure. All of the structure in the city would have been adorned with colorful, intricate murals, most of which have not withstood the test of time. However, near the Pyramid of the Sun is a mural of a jaguar covered by a corrugated metal roof in an effort to protect it from the elements that serves as an example of the elaborate art that would have been seen throughout the city.
At the southern end of the avenue is the citadel, or “cuidadela,” temple complex, which housed the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, also known as the Temple of the Feathered Serpent–an important symbol of the city’s power seen adorning most structures–and was the city’s center of worship. It was a sunken complex situated near the city’s center and in addition to be a religious center, could have also been the city’s capital center. Capable of holding up to 100,000 people and designed to overwhelm visitors, Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl was flanked by upper-class apartments, which likely were reserved for individuals of great political or religious significance. Teotihuacán is a prime example of Mesoamerican urban planning, specifically with regard to how cities’ grid patterns and layout was a representation of their view of the Universe. With the precise measurements and the particular alignment to North, the inhabitants of Teotihuacán could use markers like the angle of sunrise and sunset to calibrate their sense of time or use the urban layout like a giant calendar, which would tell them when to plant or harvest certain crops and when to perform particular rituals.
Across the street from the citadel, or religious compound, was what is believed to be a large marketplace. The designation of a large space for the trade and sale of goods suggests that Teotihuacán was too large to be a chiefdom; rather, Teotihuacán likely had a highly organized political structure, which is also evidenced by the different districts and by the remarkable level of organization in the city. At the on-site Museo de Teotihuacán, you can see scaled down model (see image right) of what archaeologists believe the city would’ve looked like at the height of its occupation. Though only the barest of foundations remain today, the city had an impressive and advanced system of what archaeologists consider to be primitive apartment buildings that have multiple levels and would have allowed separate familiar and households to have separate dwellings in the same structure. These structures would have allowed the population of Teotihuacán to grow to impressive proportions, which also strained the natural resources of the region.
Ritual Sacrifice in Teotihuacán
The Teotihuacáns practiced ritual sacrifice, both of humans and animals, in a variety of ways. According to excavations at the Pyramid of the Moon, which is the oldest ceremonial structure in the city and is thought to have been the center of the city’s religious and ritual activities, humans and majestic animals–such as a large eagle–were buried alive beneath the temple’s foundation. After tunneling 140 feet into the pyramid, archaeologists identified five separate burial sites with the carnage consisting of disembodied heads, sacrificed warriors and dignitaries, and carnivorous mammals, birds of prey, and aggressive reptiles. Analysis of these sacrifices suggests that each victim was ritually killed in order to consecrate each stage of the pyramid’s construction. For example, the earliest sacrificed coincided with a renovation that significantly expanded and enlarged the structure.
Interestingly, ritual sacrifice was also used as a means of controlling the population; it could either be seen as a great honor to be chosen as a sacrifice, or it could have been used as a form of punishment. Human sacrifices were obtained in a variety of ways. One of the sacrifices found in the Pyramid of the Moon appears to have been a captive from elsewhere in Central Mexico; his hands were bound behind his back before he was buried alive, alongside animals that were likely symbolic of mystical powers or militaristic strength, such as pumas, a wolf, eagles, a falcon, an owl, and rattlesnakes. Most of the animals were also buried alive, most of the time while caged. There were grave good buried with the war prisoner, such as obsidian weapons and a goddless-like figurine made of greenstone, which could have been a representation of the goddess to whom the sacrifice was dedicated.
Another burial vault discovered in the Pyramid of the Moon during an excavation led by an Arizona State University researcher contains the remains of 12 people, all apparently sacrificed and buried with various grave goods and animal remains. This discovery is notable for being particularly grisly, and it’s likely that the spectacle, which was probably seen by the majority of the city’s inhabitant, was a very bloody, brutal sight. Of the remains, 10 of them were decapitated and appear to have been tossed into a heap at one side of the chamber rather than being deliberately arranged and heavily ornamented like the other two. The ornamentation of the two sacrifices, who were likely of a very high social rank, included greenstone jewelry designed to look like human jaws and objects similar in theme and appearance. The animal remains were mostly on the side with the heap of decapitated individuals and consisted mostly of canines, felines, and birds, many of which were eagles. Most of the animals had been bound and buried alive, and in addition to the complete remains there were many additional decapitated heads of animals thrown in too.
In an excavation in 2002, the same ASU team found evidence of Mayan interaction among ritual sacrifices. Three ceremonially positioned figured were found adorned with jade Mayan jewelry that would suggest the individuals had ties to Mayan aristocracy; it’s possible that they were captured by the Teotihuacán military, or perhaps had assimilated into Teotihuacán prior to the sacrifice. Another burial consisted of four men found to be bound and buried alive. Isotopic analysis suggests that two of them were from Teotihuacán, but the other two were brought from another region.
In the citadel near the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, which is one of the smaller of the city’s pyramids, is a burial of about 200 of Teotihuacán’s seemingly young, strong, and healthy warriors. They were bound with their hands behind their back and sacrificed, then buried in a mass grave with their weapons, shields, and other militaristic gear. The Temple of the Feathered Serpent appears to have been built in a single construction episode circa 200 CE and features large burial pits on the north and south sides of the pyramid (see image left), each of which contains the skeletons of eighteen young warriors adorned with necklaces made of real and artificial human mandibles, or jaws. In other pits dated to around the same periods were women and older men who were less ceremoniously displayed.
Sacrifice and Spiritual Beliefs
So many of these sacrificial findings consisting of Teotihuacán’s own warriors has been suggested to indicate that Teotihuacán was a society in which the spiritual beliefs could be considered a “militaristic cult.” Warriors were highly revered, but interestingly, that reverie is also what made the city’s political and religious leaders want to sacrifice them. Interestingly, when the site was later discovered and occupied by the Aztecs, they continued the tradition of ritual human sacrifice, also sacrificing fierce warriors.
We can’t be certain of their religious beliefs due to the lack of a written record left behind; however, we do have records from many tribes and peoples in the region who lived alongside the Teotihuacáns, though it’s believed the contact with these other groups was minimal and limited to sourcing sacrifices. Most other cultures in the region believed that the world had undergone four cycles, or “suns,” and that they lived in the era of the world’s fifth “sun,” which was already very old. Due to the age of the world’s cycle, they thought that the world could end at any moment. They believed that the end of the world would begin with a series of severe earthquakes. It’s possible, some have even said likely, that the Teotihuacáns had beliefs very similar to this, and in an effort to postpone the pending apocalypse, they generously sacrificed humans, both their own and those sourced from other tribes throughout the region, by the thousands.
According to some of the surviving murals in the city, there’s evidence that the inhabitants of the city made spiritual sacrifices to the god Tláloc, who was their god of rain, fertility, and water. There are also images of a female spider-like goddess who was likely the matriarch of their belief system; scholars refer to her as simply “the Spider Woman” (see image right). It seems the ceremonial sacrifices were timed with the appearance of Venus as the morning or evening star, which may mean Venus is a symbol of the Spider Goddess. Scientists believe that Venus is represented in the murals and icongraphic symbols at the site as either a full or half star with a full or have circle, respectively.
Thousands of Relics Found
In a 340-foot tunnel discovered beneath the entrance to the Temple of the Feathered Serpent–the third largest pyramid at Teotihuacán–that has been sealed and undisturbed for 2,000 years, archaeologists have found thousands of relics and three additional chambers that could yield even more important findings.
According to studies conducted by the National Institute of Archaeology and History, the tunnel was sealed around the year 250 CE and has remained unopened and unused since then. Project leader Sergio Gomez, who has been working on clearing the tunnel with his team since they discovered the tunnel in 2003, says they’ve just bared scratched the surface of what they’ve found, but the findings range from relics to seeds to pottery to bones. A large offering found at a chamber entrance (see image left) suggests they could be tombs of the city’s elite, whether figures of political, militaristic, or religious significance.
One of the most important aspects of this discovery is that, to date, no other finds from previous excavations can be linked definitively to Teotihuacán’s ruling elite. If the chambers are, in fact, burial chambers containing human remains, this would provide the opportunity to study the lineages of these individuals and find out of the leadership structure of Teotihuacán was hereditary, meaning successive rulers came from a single family or familial line. Scientists could also try to determine to where the lineage of the ruling class of Teotihuacán can be traced, and whether or not they were closely related to other groups in the region.
So far, Gomez’s team has only made it about two feet into the chambers using advanced robotics to carefully excavate dirt and debris out of the way; he says they’re about another year from finding out if there are people buried in any of the chambers. Images published by BBC show the a map of the tunnel system that Gomez and his team are excavating and several shots of some of the findings. Located about 60 feet beneath the pyramids surface, there have been aggregations of shells and bones found throughout the cave in additional to jewelry and other findings. Many are in exceptionally great condition due to having been sealed off for so long, which protected the artifacts from looting and being destroyed or broken. It’s likely that we’ll learn more about Teotihuacán and its inhabitants from this discovery than we have from all the excavations of the past two decades combined.