The History of the Native Peoples of the Americas/Mesoamerican Cultures/Teotihuacanos

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Teotihuacán[1] [teotiwa'kan] (Nahuatl: "place of those who have the road of the gods") was, at its height in the first half of the 1st millennium CE, the largest city in the Americas. The name Teotihuacan is also used to refer to the civilization that this city was the center of, which at its greatest extent included much of central Mexico. Its influence spread throughout Mesoamerica; evidence of Teotihuacano presence, if not outright political and economic control, can be seen at numerous sites in Veracruz and the Maya region.

The city was located in what is now the San Juan Teotihuacán municipality in the State of México, Mexico, approximately 40 kilometre (about 25 miles) northeast of Mexico City. It covers a total surface area of 83 square kilometres and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Name[edit | edit source]

...and the opposing view, from the Pyramid of the Sun.

The name Teotihuacan was given by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztec centuries after the fall of the city. The term has been glossed as 'birthplace of the gods,' reflecting Nahua creation myths that took place in Teotihuacan. Another translation was offered by Thelma Sullivan, who interprets the name as "place of those who have the road of the gods."

The original name of the city is unknown, but it appears in hieroglyphic texts from the Maya region as 'puh', or Place of Reeds. This suggests that the Maya understood Teotihuacan as a 'Place of Reeds' similar to other Central Mexican settlements that took the name '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 term applied to any large settlement, rather like the modern expression "the Big Smoke". 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.[2]

A Platform along the Avenue of the Dead demonstrating the Talud-Tablero architectural style.

History[edit | edit source]

Origins and foundation[edit | edit source]

The early history of Teotihuacan is quite mysterious, and the origin of its founders is debated. For many years, archaeologists believed it was built by the Toltec people, an early Mexican civilization. This belief was based on Aztec writings which attributed the site to the Toltecs. However, the Nahuatl word "Toltec" means "great craftsman" and may not always refer to the Toltec civilization. Also, Teotihuacan predates the Toltec civilization, ruling them out as the city's founders. Other scholars have put forth the Totonac people as the founders of Teotihuacan, and the debate continues to this day. There is evidence that at least some of the people living in Teotihuacan came from areas influenced by the Teotihuacano civilization, including the Zapotec, Mixtec and Maya peoples. The culture and architecture of Teotihuacan was influenced by the Olmec people, who are considered to be the "mother civilization" of Mesoamerica. The earliest buildings at Teotihuacan date to about 200 BCE, and the largest pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun, was completed by 100 CE.

Zenith[edit | edit source]

The city reached its zenith between 150 and 450 CE, when it was the center of a powerful culture that dominated Mesoamerica, wielding power and influence comparable to ancient Rome. At its height the city covered over 30 square kilometre (over 11½ square miles), and probably housed a population of over 150,000 people, possibly as many as 250,000.[3]. Various districts in the city housed people from across the Teotihucano empire that spread to south as far as Guatemala. Notably absent from the city are fortifications and military structures. Teotihuacan had a major influence on the Preclassic Maya, allying itself with some, conquering several other Maya centers including Tikal and influencing Maya culture. The Teotihuacano style of architecture was a major contribution to Mesoamerican culture. The stepped pyramids that were quite prominent in Maya and Aztec architecture came from Teotihuacan. [citation needed] This style of building was called "talud-tablero", where a rectangular panel (tablero) was placed over a sloping side (talud). 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. Unfortunately no ancient Teotihuacano non-ideogram|ideographic texts are known to exist (or known to have existed), but mentions of the city in inscriptions from Maya cities show that Teotihuacán nobility travelled to and perhaps conquered local rulers as far away as Honduras. Maya script|Maya inscriptions mention an individual nicknamed by scholars as "Spearthrower Owl", apparently ruler of Teotihuacan, who reigned for over 60 years and installed his relatives as ruler of Tikal and Uaxactún in Guatemala. Most of what we infer about the culture at Teotihuacán comes from the murals that adorn the site and others, like the Wagner Murals, found in private collections, and from hieroglyphic inscriptions made by the Maya civilization|Maya describing their encounters with Teotihuacano conquerors.

Collapse[edit | edit source]

It was previously believed that sometime during the 7th or 8th centuries, the city was sacked and burned by invaders, possibly the Toltecs. More recent evidence, however, seems to indicate that the burning was limited to the structures and dwellings associated primarily with the elite class. Some see this as evidence that the burning was from an internal uprising and that the invasion theory is flawed due to the fact that early archaeological work on the city was focused exclusively on the palaces and temples, places used by the elites, and because all of these sites showed burning, archaeologists concluded that the whole city was burned. Instead, it is now known that the destruction in the city was focused on major civic structures along the Avenue of the Dead. Some statues seem to have been destroyed in a methodical way, their fragments dispersed. The fact that population began to decline around 500-600 AD also supports the internal unrest hypothesis. The decline of Teotihucán has been correlated with the droughts related to the Climate changes of 535–536. This theory is supported by the archeological remains that show a rise in the percentage of juvenile skeletons with evidence of malnutrition during the 6th century. This does not conflict with either of the above theories however since both increased warfare and internal unrest can also be effects of a general period of drought and famine. [4] Other nearby centers like Cholula, Xochicalco, and Cacaxtla attempted to fill the powerful vacuum left by Teotihuacan's decline. They may have aligned themselves against Teotihuacan in an attempt to reduce its influence and power. The art and architecture at these sites shows an interest in emulating Teotihuacan forms, but also a more eclectic mix of motifs and iconography from other parts of Mesoamerica, particularly the Maya region.

Teotihuacano culture[edit | edit source]

Stone mask discovered at Teotihuacán, 3rd to 7th century CE

People[edit | edit source]

There is archaeological evidence that Teotihuacán was a multi-ethnic city, with distinct Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya civilization|Maya and what seem to be Nahua quarters. The Totonacs have always maintained that they were the ones who built it, a story that was corroborated later by the Aztecs.

Language[edit | edit source]

In his 2001 paper,[5] Terrence Kaufman presents linguistic evidence suggesting that an important ethnic group in Teotihuacan was of Totonacan languages|Totonacan and/or Mixe-Zoquean languages|Mixe-Zoquean linguistic affiliation. He uses this to explain general influences from Totonacan and Mixe-Zoquean languages in many other Mesoamerican languages many of which do not have any known history of contact with either of the above mentioned groups.

Religion[edit | edit source]

The religion of Teotihuacan is similar to those of other Mesoamerican cultures. Many of the same gods were worshipped, including the Quetzalcoatl|Feathered Serpent and Tlaloc|The Rain god. Teotihuacan was a major religious center, and the priests probably had a great deal of political power. As with other Mesoamerican cultures, Teotihuacanos practiced human sacrifice. Human bodies and animal sacrifices have been found during excavations of the pyramids at Teotihuacan; it is believed that when the buildings were expanded, sacrifices were made to dedicate the new building. The victims were probably enemy warriors captured in battle and then brought to the city to be ritually sacrificed so the city could prosper. Some were decapitated, some had their hearts removed, others were killed by being hit several times over the head and some were even buried alive. Animals that were considered sacred and represented mythical powers and military might were also buried alive but imprisioned in cages: cougars, a wolf, eagles, a falcon, an owl, and even venomous snakes.

Site layout[edit | edit source]

The city's broad central avenue, called "Avenue of the Dead" (a translation from its Nahuatl name Miccaotli), is flanked by impressive ceremonial architecture, including the immense Pyramid of the Sun (second largest in the New World after the Great Pyramid of Cholula) and the Pyramid of the Moon. Along the Avenue of the Dead are many smaller talud-tablero platforms. The Aztecs believed they were tombs, inspiring the name of the avenue. Now they are known to be 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. Many of the rich and powerful Teotihucanos lived in Palaces near the temples. The largest of these cover more than 3300 sq. meters [6]. Most of the common people lived in large apartment buildings spread across the city. Many of buildings contained workshops that produced pottery and other goods.

The geographical layout of Teotihuacán is a good example of the Mesoamerican architecture|Mesoamerican tradition of planning cities, settlements and buildings as a representation of the Teotihuacano view of the Universe. Its urban grid is aligned to precisely 15.5º east of north. The Street of the Dead, in particular, seems to line up with Cerro Gordo to the north of the Pyramid of the Moon. Pecked-cross circles throughout the city and in the surrounding regions indicate how the grid was managed over long distances.

Archaeological site[edit | edit source]

Image:Teonate.JPG|thumb|right|360px|Pyramid of the Sun Knowledge of the huge ruins of Teotihuacan was never lost. After the fall of the city, various squatters lived on the site. During Aztec times, the city was place of pilgrimage and identified with the myth of Tollan, the place where the sun was created. Teotihuacan astonished the Spanish conquistadores during the Contact era. Today Teotihuacan is one of the most noted archaeological attractions in Mexico.

Excavations and investigations[edit | edit source]

Minor archaeological excavations were conducted in the 19th century, and in 1905 major projects of excavation and restoration began under archaeologist Leopoldo Batres. The Pyramid of the Sun was restored to celebrate the centennial of Mexican Independence in 1910. Major programs of excavation and restoration were carried out in 1960-65 and 1980-82. Recent projects at the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent have greatly expanded evidence of cultural practices. Teotihuacan features museums and reconstructed structures.

Gallery[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. The name is often spelled with an orthographic accent on the last syllable, following the spelling and pronunciation of the name in Spanish language|Spanish. However, the name is pronounced [teoti'wakan] in Nahuatl, with the accent on the syllable wa, and by normal Nahuatl orthographic conventions a written accent would not appear in that position. Both pronunciations are used, and both spellings appear in this article.
  2. Miller and Taube (1993), p.170.
  3. Malstrom, p. 105 gives a figure of 50,000 to 200,000. Coe et al. (1986) says it "might lie between 125,000 and 250,000".
  4. Kaufman 2001 p.4
  5. Kaufman's paper entitled "Nawa linguistic prehistory" can be read as a .pdf file on the site of the MLDP, following this link.
  6. Readers Digest, p.116