Teotihuacan is a pre-Hispanic, pre-Aztec city in what is now Mexico, some distance away from Mexico City. As with all archaeological finds recorded by later civilizations that are now past, in this case the Aztec civilization, we only have a limited understanding of what Teotihuacan really is.
This is not to say that we don’t really know anything about the city. Scholars, especially those who have a deeper understanding of Mesoamerican (literally, “middle American”) history, make educated approximations (“guesses” would not be the right word) based on what they already know of past civilizations and present cultural norms.
On naming conventions in Teotihuacan history
Most interestingly, because of the greatly layered history, Teotihuacan is most likely not even what the people who first lived there called it. The Aztecs gave Teotihuacan its first names. Later on, because of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, a number of the names commonly used are Spanish. What we know about what we call Teotihuacan might not be what the Teotihuacan would want us to know about them; not even their city’s name.
As we continue into Teotihuacan history, keep in mind that this is a civilization that had been gone for maybe 600 years when the Aztecs discovered it. While the city site has been fully mapped, only portions of it have been excavated. The more we excavate, the more information that is collected about Mesoamerican history as a whole, the more we will know about this great and dignified city.
What is a Mesoamerican civilization?
“Mesoamerican” means “middle American” in Greek. It is firstly a geographical location, from Central America all the way up to Mexico. It is secondly a chronological time period, specifically the time before the arrival of the Spanish. There are some controversial ancient sites that claim to be as old as 21,000 BCE (Before Common Era).
However, the general agreement is that the earliest communities in Mesoamerica were established in 11,000 BCE. Archaeological finds show that at one point there were large numbers of grazing herds, as well as great amounts of grass. These pre-date the woodlands that would later take over Central America in around 7,000 BCE.
Heading towards sophistication
As a result, the earliest people communities were believed to be hunter-gatherers and keepers of livestock. As the tropical forests grew, the communities began to define their lands against nature through farming. An early crop dated to around 5,000 BCE was maize, or corn. By 1500 BCE, the communities had settled into permanent village farms.
Pottery, the “first synthetic material” made by humans, showed up around this time. As pottery is long-lasting but too heavy to tote around and potentially breakable, it usually accompanies sedentary lifestyles. The larger and the harder to carry the pots, the more likely they were used for storage and were not carried around. Pottery also implies the sophistication of thought needed to compose, shape, and fire the material.
The Olmec and the Zapotec
A sedentary, self-sustaining community is a community that can build lasting structures. The oldest known Mesoamerican civilization, a landowning social class called the Olmec, started around this time. They built stone monuments with heads measuring 9 feet high and controlled rich farmlands.
Later on, the Zapotec people developed their own system of writing. Writing is a civilization milestone because, among other reasons, they imply a level of record-keeping and communication over distances. They also imply that thought-leaders (possibly not scholars as we would conceive of them) were tasked with turning phonetics into symbols, and then teaching them to others and standardizing them.
They also set up a written calendar, meaning they took the time to observe the cycles of every year, to mark the differences between each season, and to record them. A calendar would have possibly been settled upon after several years of observation and discussion about what characterized each season. It would then be applied to the community as a whole, marking special days, anniversaries, predicting times for planting and harvest, and so forth. Sophistication and calendars go together.
Later Mesoamerican civilizations
Looking at this, the Teotihuacan civilization is actually part of the later history of the early Mesoamerican period. It joins the generally well-known Maya civilization, which added mathematics and astronomy, and of course its famous architecture, to the Mesoamerican cultural heritage.
(Again, astronomy, mathematics, and architecture are clear signs of sophistication. The first requirement for such a civilization would be the peace to stay in one place for an extended period of time. Another would be the time, space, and support to organize information according to observation and logic.)
The Teotihuacan civilization, on the other hand, became a political and business empire. This requires a different level of sophistication. As we will see later, they were not considered a military institution nor were there any signs that they ever maintained a military. As a result, the Teotihuacan people would have been a political and business empire for different reasons than military might.
After the decline of the Teotihuacan, the Toltec people would rise but not so high. The Aztecs would later become the dominating force in Central America. As we know, it is the Aztecs whom the Europeans first encountered upon their arrival in what would later become Latin or South America.
The Teotihuacan civilization
If the Teotihuacan civilization was so grand, comparable, as some scholars say, to the ancient Roman empire, then why do we know so little about it? Surely there would be more marks of their influence and power.
No writing system and no demonstration of military might
First of all, there is no record that the Teotihuacan civilization had a writing system in the way that we understand it. Instead, they had ideographs, better known as glyphs, which were a writing system using collections of visual symbols to create meaning.
However, in the same way that Egyptian hieroglyphs were so challenging to crack until the Rosetta Stone’s triple-translated content shed some light, Teotihuacan glyphs are beyond our current understanding. There is no Mesoamerican Rosetta Stone as such (as far as we know). As a result, what we do know comes from writings that were phonetically sounded out and organized, such as Mayan writings that mentioned Teotihuacan visiting nobles.
Secondly, for such a grand city, there are few indications that the Teotihuacan city ever maintained a military force. Even the so-called Citadel, named by the Spanish and indicating a fort, was discovered to simply be a great building part of the city center; not a fort. (Which incidentally tells us a little more about how the Spanish see the world than it does about the Teotihuacan.) There are some conflicting archaeological finds that show that they did in fact have warriors and did also conquer some cities, but it was not a military nation and did not maintain its own safety or power by military means.
Unlike the Roman Empire, which had a sophisticated military that spread into much of the world, leaving little Roman forts and large Roman walls here and there (Hadrian’s Wall comes easily to mind), Teotihuacan architecture, practices, and religions would not have been imposed on other civilizations. Rather, it was an extremely centralized civilization that would have drawn people from all over the Mesoamerican region much as our thriving cities do today.
Ironically, this leaves us less to work with than what the Roman Empire left us with.
The basics: When and where
The Teotihuacan community is thought to have started anywhere between 100 BCE and 200 CE (Common Era). What is well known is that it rose into power by 400 to 450 CE. A very conservative estimate of its population is 25,000 people; based on the length and breadth of its residential quarters, others estimate that as many as 200,000 people lived there at its apex.
It is thought to have begun a massive decline in the 700s CE, after evidence of possible infighting or uprisings. The Toltecs were the next to occupy the region, but the Aztecs later on discovered and named the place. They considered it highly and sacrificed to its gods.
Teotihuacan itself is located in Teotihuacan Valley, in the Basin of Central Mexico. It was 36 square kilometers at its peak, with a small roughly 3.6-square kilometer ceremonial center. The residences and centers for trade and industry surrounded this center.
Teotihuacan economy and trade
The Central American civilizations were delighted by obsidian. Their area is volcanic, leading to large rocks perfect for carving and large deposits of obsidian. There was no need to mine, melt, forge, or sharpen weapons. They would chip at and carve obsidian into dart- and spear-heads.
Teotihuacan was located beside large obsidian deposits, which would have been a solid basis for economic trade. The city was also large and expansive, centrally located, generally peaceful and protected from the elements by the mountains surrounding the valley. It was perfect as a center for trade and industry. Cotton, cacao, maize, pottery, and many more items flowed through the city.
What makes city economics so important to civilization in general is that cities bring into juxtaposition, or near proximity (nearness), different items that would otherwise come from farther away. A businessman could bring the produce of his village (let’s say cotton) to a large city and trade for pots for cooking and obsidian for weapons all in the same place. It saves on time and money to go to the cities.
Teotihuacan was also located in the middle of land rich enough to have a self-sustaining crop and livestock system. The city could feed itself and all its inhabitants, as well as all of its visitors. It could also trade such food and livestock for other goods brought in by visitors. A redirected river flowed through the city.
This self-sufficiency may be a clue as to why Teotihuacan was a great but non-military civilization. It also shows how economically stable the entire region was at that point, since Teotihuacan did not put up any kinds of protective military installations.
At the same time, its geography and situation in a valley cannot be underestimated. The mountains would have created a natural barrier to any large force, and the valley plains would have made it virtually impossible for any substantial enough enemy to come through undetected.
Climate changes around the 500s CE caused terrible droughts that would have affected all of Central America. Archaeological finds show that there were higher counts of child mortality at this time, and their bones show considerable malnutrition. Population growth began to decline, and the 700s saw the damage that pointed to unrest or invasion.
Without food sufficiency, obsidian deposits would not have been very helpful to either the Teotihuacan or other cities. There is no evidence that the Teotihuacan were invaded for their obsidian deposits either.
Teotihuacan city planning and architecture
More evidence of planning and sophistication is seen in the expansive grid-like structure of the entire city. The central “highway” is called the Avenue of the Dead, called Miccaotli by the Aztecs and so named because of the supposed tombs lining the great walkway. As the Aztecs only discovered the city after it was deserted, they mistook the leveled small houses for tombs. (Perhaps this also tells us more about the Aztecs than about the Teotihuacan.)
On the map, you can see that the Avenue directly connects to the Pyramid of the Moon, the second-largest pyramid in the city. If you were to come from the Pyramid of the Moon and walk directly down to the end of the Avenue (quite a walk), you would pass the tallest pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun, on your left side. These pyramids were built on foundations layered with both animal and human sacrifices; great monuments on sacrificial bases.
If you went all the way down to the end of the Avenue, you would pass the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, also on your left side. The large residential districts, the “palacios,” would be on your right side as you walked down the Avenue. Smaller houses and shops would pepper the area all around the Avenue.
Based on archaeological finds, the city seems to have had multi-ethnic “districts” or “quarters” that housed people from different cities across Central Asia. It also had family compounds ranging from small to palatial, and introduced the talud-tablero (again, a Spanish term meaning sloping plane, a talud, and a board extension, a tablero). “Steps” would be set into a sloping wall, but they were decorative and too large to actually use as stairs. A smaller, sloping set of stairs were used for scaling these structures.
City planning as a mark of civilization means that there was enough of a central government to dictate a well-organized city plan. There would have been enough resources to set up the city and maintain its wealth even as it was being developed. There would have been enough skilled laborers and our equivalent of architects and engineers to bring the whole design to life. Teotihuacan was not just impressive in scale, it was wholly impressive in the internal organization required to raise it.
Again, what we know is from archaeology and from whatever the Aztecs discovered or interpreted for themselves when they took over the area. (As they mistakenly named the Avenue for the Dead, I think we can safely say there were some hits and misses.)
From murals around the city and in the temples themselves, the Mesoamerican gods were in evidence. The Feathered Serpent God (Quetzalcoatl) was one, with a temple all to himself along the Avenue of the Dead and a palace by the Pyramid of the Moon. The Rain God (Tlaloc) was also in evidence. There was also a Spider Goddess, a Water Goddess, and other gods and goddesses in Teotihuacan murals.
A culture of sacrificing both animals and humans to these was clear from archaeological finds, but also expected of Mesoamerican religions. The orientation of the entire city towards true north (around 15 degrees off) also implies astronomical reasons for the construction. Too little is known about their systems of worship; we can only see it in the bigger culture.
The Aztecs found Teotihuacan around 1400 CE, although their civilization bore traces of its influence from the years past. The city had been deserted and fallen into disrepair for some time, but the Aztecs were fully in awe of its grandeur. The Aztecs had their own great cities, as Tenochtitlan shows, but this was a civilization much older than theirs.
Due to their limited knowledge at the time of earlier Mesoamerican history, the Aztecs saw it as the oldest known civilization, the origin, so to speak, of all theirs. They believed that Teotihuacan was where the gods created the current era (we would need to look deeper into Mesoamerican creation stories to get into this), and made pilgrimages to the city. They named Teotihuacan as we know it today, meaning the “birthplace of the gods.”
After the fall of the Aztec Empire, the Spanish discovered the area and added names to what we know now, including the Citadel. In the 1800s, some excavations were begun in the area. It was notably after Mexico had received its independence in 1821. By the early 1900s and all the way down to the 1980s, great excavation and restoration efforts were made to bring the great heritage city into a condition that could be visited and respected.
In 1987, it was officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and is legally protected from surrounding developments affecting the land and excavations.