( Teotihuacan )

Teotihuacan (; Spanish: Teotihuacán, Spanish pronunciation: [teotiwa'kan] (listen); modern Nahuatl pronunciation ) is an ancient Mesoamerican city located in a sub-valley of the Valley of Mexico, which is located in the State of Mexico, 40 kilometers (25 mi) northeast of modern-day Mexico City. Teotihuacan is known today as the site of many of the most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids built in the pre-Columbian Americas, namely the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. At its zenith, perhaps in the first half of the first millennium (1 CE to 500 CE), Teotihuacan was the largest city in...Read more

Teotihuacan (; Spanish: Teotihuacán, Spanish pronunciation: [teotiwa'kan] (listen); modern Nahuatl pronunciation ) is an ancient Mesoamerican city located in a sub-valley of the Valley of Mexico, which is located in the State of Mexico, 40 kilometers (25 mi) northeast of modern-day Mexico City. Teotihuacan is known today as the site of many of the most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids built in the pre-Columbian Americas, namely the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. At its zenith, perhaps in the first half of the first millennium (1 CE to 500 CE), Teotihuacan was the largest city in the Americas, considered as the first advanced civilization on the North American continent, with a population estimated at 125,000 or more, making it at least the sixth-largest city in the world during its epoch.

The city covered eight square miles (21 km2), and 80 to 90 percent of the total population of the valley resided in Teotihuacan. Apart from the pyramids, Teotihuacan is also anthropologically significant for its complex, multi-family residential compounds, the Avenue of the Dead, and its vibrant, well-preserved murals. Additionally, Teotihuacan exported fine obsidian tools found 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. Its collapse might be related to the extreme weather events of 535–536.

Teotihuacan began as a religious center in the Mexican Highlands around the first century CE. It became the largest and most populated center in the pre-Columbian Americas. Teotihuacan was home to multi-floor apartment compounds built to accommodate the large population. The term Teotihuacan (or Teotihuacano) is also used to refer to 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. Evidence of Teotihuacano presence is found 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 the subject of debate. Possible candidates are the Nahua, Otomi, or Totonac ethnic groups. Other scholars have suggested that Teotihuacan was multi-ethnic, due to the discovery of cultural aspects connected to the Maya as well as Oto-Pamean people. It is clear that many different cultural groups lived in Teotihuacan during the height of its power, with migrants coming from all over, but especially from Oaxaca and the Gulf Coast.

After the collapse of Teotihuacan, central Mexico was dominated by more regional powers, notably Xochicalco and Tula.

The city and the archeological site are located in what is now the San Juan Teotihuacán municipality in the State of México, approximately 40 kilometers (25 mi) northeast of Mexico City. The site covers a total surface area of 83 square kilometers (32 sq mi) and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. It is the most-visited archeological site in Mexico, receiving 4,185,017 visitors in 2017.

Historical course
Front view of the Pyramid of the Sun
Left side view of the Pyramid of the Sun

The first human establishment in the Teotihuacan area dates back to 600 BCE, and until 200 BCE the site consisted of scattered small villages. The total estimated population of the Teotihuacan Valley during this time was approximately 6,000.[1] From 100 BCE to 750 CE, Teotihuacan evolved into a huge urban and administrative center with cultural influences throughout the broader Mesoamerica region.

The history of Teotihuacan is distinguished by four consecutive periods:

Period I occurred between 200 - 1 BCE and marks the development of a distinctively urban area. During this period, Teotihuacan began to grow into a city as local farmers began coalescing around the abundant springs of Teotihuacan.[2]

Period II lasted between 1 CE to 350 CE. During this era, Teotihuacan exhibited explosive growth and emerged as the largest metropolis in Mesoamerica. Factors influencing this growth include the destruction of other settlements due to volcanic eruptions and the economic pull of the expanding city.[2] This influx of new residents caused a reorganization of urban housing to the unique compound complexes that typify Teotihuacan.[2] This period is notable for its monumental architecture and sculpture, especially the construction of some of the most well-known sites of Teotihuacan, the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon.[3] Further, the shift of political power from the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and its surrounding palace structure to the Avenue of the Dead Complex occurred sometime between CE 250 and 350.[4] Some authors believe that this represents a shift from the centralized, monarchical political system to a more decentralized and bureaucratic organization.[2][4] Around 300 CE, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent was desecrated and construction in the city proceeded in a more egalitarian direction, focusing on the building of comfortable, stone accommodations for the population.[5]

Period III lasted from 350 to 650 CE and is known as the classical period of Teotihuacan, during which the city reached the apogee of its influence in Mesoamerica. Its population is estimated at a minimum of 125,000 inhabitants, and the city was among the largest cities in the ancient world, containing 2,000 buildings within an area of 18 square kilometers.[6] It was also during this high period when Teotihuacan contained approximately half all people in the Valley of Mexico, becoming a kind of primate city of Mesoamerica.[6] This period saw a massive reconstruction of buildings, and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, which dates back to the previous period, was covered with a plaza with rich sculptural decoration.[5] Typical artistic artifacts of this period are funeral masks, crafted mainly from green stone and covered with mosaics of turquoise, shell or obsidian. These masks were highly uniform in nature.

Period IV describes the time period between 650 and 750 CE. It marks the end of Teotihuacan as a major power in Mesoamerica. The city's elite housing compounds, clustered around the Avenue of the Dead, bear many burn marks, and archeologists hypothesize that the city experienced civil strife that hastened its decline.[7] Factors that also led to the decline of the city included disruptions in tributary relations, increased social stratification, and power struggles between the ruling and intermediary elites.[2] Following this decline, Teotihuacan continued to be inhabited, though it never reached its previous levels of population.

Origins and foundation
Teotihuacan and other important Classic Era settlements

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.[8] Teotihuacan was the largest urban center of Mesoamerica before the Aztecs, almost 1000 years prior to their epoch.[8] The city was already in ruins by the time of the Aztecs. For many years, archeologists 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.[9]

Other scholars have put forth the Totonac people as the founders of Teotihuacan and have suggested that Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic state since they find diverse cultural aspects connected to the Zapotec, Mixtec, and Maya peoples.[10] 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.[8] 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.[11]

Year 378: Conquest of Tikal

Evidence of a king or other authoritarian ruler is strikingly absent in Teotihuacan. Contemporaneous cities in the same region, including Mayan and Zapotec, as well as the earlier Olmec civilization, left ample attestations of dynastic authoritarian sovereignty in the form of royal palaces, ceremonial ball courts, and depictions of war, conquest, and humiliated captives. However, no such artifacts have been found in Teotihuacan. Many scholars have thus concluded that Teotihuacan was led by some sort of "collective governance."[12]

In January 378, the warlord Sihyaj K'ahk' (literally, "born of fire"), depicted with artifacts and the feather-serpent imagery associated with Teotihuacan culture, conquered Tikal, 600 miles away from Teotihuacan, 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. At this time, the Spearthrower Owl ruler was also associated with Teotihuacan culture.[13]

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 ...[14]

Year 426: Conquest of Copán and Quiriguá

In 426, the Copán ruling dynasty was created with K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' as the first king. The Dynasty went on to have sixteen rulers.[15] Copán is located in modern-day Honduras, as described by Copán Altar Q.[16] Soon thereafter, Yax K'uk' Mo' installed Tok Casper as king of Quiriguá, about 50 km north of Copán.


The city reached its peak in 450 CE when it was the center of a powerful culture whose influence extended through much of the Mesoamerican region. At this time, the city covered over 30 km2 (over 11+12 square miles), and perhaps housed a population of 150,000 people, with one estimate reaching as high as 250,000.[17] Various districts in the city housed people from across the Teotihuacan region of influence, which spread south as far as Guatemala. Notably absent from the city are fortifications and military structures.

View of the Pyramid of the Moon from the Pyramid of the Sun

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.[18] However, scholars debate the extent and degree of Teotihuacan influence. Some believe that it had direct and militaristic dominance while others view the adoption of "foreign" traits as 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 Toltec and Aztec.[19][20] It is believed that Teotihuacan had a major influence on the Preclassic and Classic Maya.

Platform along the Avenue of the Dead showing the talud-tablero architectural style
Restored portion of Teotihucan architecture showing the typical Mesoamerican use of red paint complemented on gold and jade decoration upon marble and granite.

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.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23] 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 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. During its zenith, the main structures at Teotihuacan, including the pyramids, were painted in impressive shades of dark red, with some small spots persisting to this day.[24]

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 once 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 named 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.[citation needed]

Scholars have based interpretations of Teotihuacan culture on its archeology, murals that adorn the site (and others, like the Wagner Murals, found in private collections), and hieroglyphic inscriptions made by the Maya describing their encounters with Teotihuacan 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.[25]

Felid head, Teotihuacán, Mexico.
Teotihuacán-style mask, Classical period. Walters Art Museum.

Scholars originally 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.[26] Some think this suggests that the burning was from an internal uprising and the invasion theory is flawed because early archeological efforts were focused exclusively on the palaces and temples, places used by the upper classes. Because all of these sites showed burning, archeologists 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. The sculptures inside palatial structures, such as Xalla, were shattered.[27] No traces of foreign invasion are visible at the site.[26]

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, possibly caused by the eruption of the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador. This theory of ecological decline is supported by archeological remains that show a rise in the percentage of juvenile skeletons with evidence of malnutrition during the 6th century, further supporting the hypothesis of famine as one of the more plausible reasons for the decline of Teotihuacan. Urbanized Teotihuacanos would likely have been dependent on agricultural crops such as maize, beans, amaranth, tomatillos, and pumpkins. If climate change affected crop yields, then the harvest would not have been sufficient to feed Teotihucan's extensive population.[28] However, the two main hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Drought leading to famine could have led to incursions from smaller surrounding civilizations as well as internal unrest.[29]

As Teotihuacan fell in local prominence, other nearby centers, such as Cholula, Xochicalco, and Cacaxtla, competed to fill the power void. They may have even aligned themselves against Teotihuacan to seize the opportunity to further 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.[citation needed]

The sudden destruction of Teotihuacan was common for Mesoamerican city-states of the Classic and Epi-Classic period. Many Maya states suffered similar fates in subsequent 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.[30]

Aztec Period

During the 1200s CE, Nahua migrants repopulated the area. By the 1300s, it had fallen under the sway of Huexotla, and in 1409 was assigned its own tlatoani, Huetzin, a son of the tlatoani of Huexotla. But his reign was cut short when Tezozomoc, tlatoani of Azcapotzalco, invaded Huexotla and the neighboring Acolhua lands in 1418. Huetzin was deposed by the invaders, and Tezozomoc installed a man named Totomochtzin. Less than a decade later, in 1427, the Aztec Empire formed, and Teotihuacan was vassalized once more by the Acolhua.[31]

^ Parsons, Jeffrey R. (1974). "The Development of a Prehistoric Complex Society: A Regional Perspective from the Valley of Mexico". Journal of Field Archaeology. 1 (1/2): 81–108. doi:10.2307/529707. ISSN 0093-4690. JSTOR 529707. ^ a b c d e Nichols, Deborah L. (2016). "Teotihuacan". Journal of Archaeological Research. 24 (1): 1–74. doi:10.1007/s10814-015-9085-0. ISSN 1059-0161. JSTOR 43956797. S2CID 254607946. ^ "Teotihuacan: Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon". www.metmuseum.org. Retrieved 2020-03-11. ^ a b Cowgill, George L. (1997). "State and Society at Teotihuacan, Mexico". Annual Review of Anthropology. 26: 129–161. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.26.1.129. ISSN 0084-6570. JSTOR 2952518. ^ a b Graeber, David and Wengrow, David "The Dawn of Everything, A New History of Humanity" (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), pp. 342-343 ^ a b Sanders, William T.; Webster, David (1988). "The Mesoamerican Urban Tradition". American Anthropologist. 90 (3): 521–546. doi:10.1525/aa.1988.90.3.02a00010. ISSN 0002-7294. JSTOR 678222. ^ Luján, Leonardo López; Nadal, Laura Filloy; Fash, Barbara W.; Fash, William L.; Hernández, Pilar (2006). "The Destruction of Images in Teotihuacan: Anthropomorphic Sculpture, Elite Cults, and the End of a Civilization". RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics. 49–50 (49/50): 12–39. doi:10.1086/RESvn1ms20167692. ISSN 0277-1322. JSTOR 20167692. S2CID 193625763. ^ a b c Pollard, Elizabeth; Rosenberg, Clifford; Tignor, Robert (2015). Worlds Together Worlds Apart Volume 1 Concise Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. p. 292. ISBN 978-0-393-91847-2. ^ Secrets of the Dead, episode Teotihuacan's Lost Kings, PBS, 30 October 2018 ^ "Teotihuacan". ^ Millon (1993), p. 24. ^ Graeber, David and Wengrow, David "The Dawn of Everything, A New History of Humanity" (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), pp. 330-332 ^ Stuart, David (May 12, 2014). "Naachtun's Stela 24 and the Entrada of 378". Maya Decipherment. ^ Linda R. Manzanilla. Teotihuacan: An Exceptional Multiethnic City in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico, Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) at UC Berkeley, April 15, 2015 ^ Fiallos, Maria (2006). Honduras and the Bay Islands. Hunter Publishing, Inc. ISBN 9781588436023. ^ Carmack, Robert M.; Gasco, Janine L.; Gossen, Gary H. (2016-01-08). The Legacy of Mesoamerica: History and Culture of a Native American Civilization. Routledge. ISBN 9781317346791. ^ Malmström (1978, p. 105) gives an estimate of 50,000 to 200,000 inhabitants. Coe et al. (1986) says it "might lie between 125,000 and 250,000". Millon, p. 18, lists 125,000 in AD 600. Taube, p. 1, says "perhaps as many as 150,000". ^ Braswell (2003, p. 7) ^ "Mexico's Pyramid of Death". National Geographic. 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-26. ^ "Sacrificial Burial Deepens Mystery At Teotihuacan, But Confirms The City's Militarism". ScienceDaily. 2004. Retrieved 2008-02-26. ^ See for example Cheek (1977, passim.), who argues that much of Teotihuacan's influence stems from direct militaristic conquest. ^ See Laporte (2003, p. 205); Varela Torrecilla and Braswell (2003, p. 261). ^ Braswell (2003, p. 11) ^ Braswell (2003, p. 11); for the analysis at Tikal, see Laporte (2003, pp. 200–205) ^ Davies, p. 78. ^ a b Manzanilla, LR (2015). "Cooperation and tensions in multiethnic corporate societies using Teotihuacan, Central Mexico, as a case study". Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 112 (30): 9210–5. Bibcode:2015PNAS..112.9210M. doi:10.1073/pnas.1419881112. PMC 4522775. PMID 25775567. ^ Manzanilla L. (2003) The abandonment of Teotihuacan. The Archaeology of Settlement Abandonment in Middle America, Foundations of Archaeological Inquiry, eds Inomata T, Webb RW (Univ of Utah Press, Salt Lake City), pp 91–101/ ^ "Cultura Teotihuacana". www.historiacultural.com. Retrieved 2017-09-16. ^ Kaufman (2001, p. 4) ^ Snow, Dean R. (2010). Archaeology of Native North America. Prentice Hall. p. 156. ^ Garraty, Christopher P. (2006). "Aztec Teotihuacan: Political Processes at a Postclassic and Early Colonial City-State in the Basin of Mexico". Latin American Antiquity. 17 (4): 363–387. doi:10.2307/25063064. ISSN 1045-6635. JSTOR 25063064. S2CID 157029220.
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