Teotihuacan is an ancient Mesoamerican city located 30 miles (50 km) northeast of modern-day Mexico City. The city, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, was settled as early as 400 B.C. and became the most powerful and influential city in the region by 400 A.D. By the time the Aztecs found the city in the 1400s and named it Teotihuacan (meaning “the place where the gods were created”), the city had been abandoned for centuries. Teotihuacan’s origins, history, and culture largely remain a mystery.
Teotihuacan (also written Teotihuacán) is arranged in a grid layout that covers about 8 square miles (20 square kilometers). It contains around 2,000 single-story apartment compounds, as well as various pyramids, plazas, temples and palaces of nobles and priests.
The main buildings of Teotihuacan are connected by the Avenue of the Dead (or Miccaotli in the Aztec language Nahuatl). The Avenue of the Dead is a 130-foot- (40-meter-) wide, 1.5-mile- (2.4-km-) long road that’s oriented slightly east (15.5 degrees) of true north and points directly at the nearby sacred peak of Cerro Gordo, an extinct volcano.
The city contains several large, important structures: The Pyramid of the Moon, the Pyramid of the Sun, the Ciudadela (“Citadel”) and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent).
Pyramid of the Sun
Surrounded by smaller pyramids and platforms, the Pyramid of the Moon is situated at the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead and faces south. Standing at 140-feet (43-meters) high with a base measuring 426 by 511 feet (130 by 156 meters), the Pyramid of the Moon is the second largest structure in Teotihuacan.
Less than half a mile south of the Pyramid of the Moon stands the largest structure in Teotihuacan, the Pyramid of the Sun. Facing west, the pyramid stands at 216 feet (66 meters) with a base measuring approximately 720 by 760 feet (220 by 230 meters).
The Ciudadela is situated at the south end of the Avenue of the Dead. The 38-acre (15-hectare) courtyard contains multiple elite residential complexes and is dominated by the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, a kind of truncated pyramid that is adorned with numerous stone heads of the Feathered Serpent deity.
Who Built Teotihuacan?
It’s unknown who built the ancient city.
Scholars once believed the ancient Toltec civilization may have built the massive city, based largely on colonial period texts. But the Toltec culture (900-1150 A.D.) flourished hundreds of years after Teotihuacan peaked.
Other scholars believe the Totonacs, a tribe from the east, built and inhabited the city.
Another theory holds that immigrants flooded into the Teotihuacan valley following the eruption of a volcano, and those immigrants built or augmented the city. Teotihuacan appears to contain features of various cultures, including the Maya, Mixtec and Zapotec.
Whatever the case, Teotihuacan was founded as early as 400 B.C., though the largest structures of the city weren’t completed until about 300 A.D.
It’s thought that the city reached its peak around 100 years later, with a population as high as 200,000 people.
Little is known about the language, politics, culture and religion of the Teotihuacan people. They had a glyph-based written language, but it may have been limited to dates and names.
The art and architecture of the city shows it was a polytheistic society, with the primary deity being the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan, which is depicted as a spider goddess. Other deities include Quetzalcoatl (a vegetation god whose meaning changed in subsequent civilizations), the rain god Tlaloc, and the god of spring Xipe Totec, among others.
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The Teotihuacan priests practiced ritual sacrifices of animals and people to these gods.
In 1989, researchers discovered 18 sacrificial victims buried in a long pit just south of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. The later discovered that around 200 other victims were sacrificed when the temple was built in the early 3rd century A.D. Many of these sacrifices were male warriors in military attire, others were young women and others still were males likely of relatively high social status.
More recently, in 2004, archaeologists uncovered evidence of sacrifices at the Pyramid of the Moon that suggests the site was a place to celebrate state power and militarism.
These sacrifices included 12 people with their hands bound behind their back, 10 of whom were decapitated and tossed about at the burial vault within the pyramid. The other two sacrifices were richly ornamented.
Other sacrifices at the pyramid include five canines (wolves or coyotes), three felines (jaguar or puma) and 13 birds (many thought to be eagles)—animals believed to be symbols of warriors.
Artifacts found in the city and sites across Mexico suggest Teotihuacan was a wealthy trade metropolis in its prime.
In particular, the city exported fine obsidian tools, including spear and dart heads. Teotihuacan had a monopoly on obsidian trade—the most important deposit in Mesoamerica was located near the city.
Ceramics, such as pottery and other luxury goods, were also highly prized export goods because of their elaborate decorations. Other goods coming into and out of the city likely included cotton, cacao and exotic feathers and shells, among other things.
Local harvests included beans, avocados, peppers and squash, and the city farmers raised chickens and turkeys.
The art and architecture styles of Teotihuacan are found widely throughout Mesoamerica, suggesting the city had far-reaching influence.
It’s unclear why Teotihuacan collapsed.
Around 600 A.D., major buildings were deliberately burned and artworks and religious sculptures were destroyed, suggesting an uprising from the poor against the ruling elite.
Another theory holds that invaders sacked and burned it—though Teotihuacan exerted its military power over other cultures, the city lacked fortifications and military structures.
By 750 A.D., the remaining inhabitants of the city had all abandoned their homes to join neighboring cultures or return to their ancestral homes.
In 2003, a heavy rainstorm opened a large sinkhole at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl; researchers have been excavating the site since.
By late 2015, they had unearthed 75,000 artifacts of various type, including seashells, pottery, animal bones and human skin. They also uncovered a large chamber containing vast amount of jewelry and other treasures, such as amber jars, black stone statues and other ritual relics.
Teotihuacan. National Geographic.
Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan. UNESCO.
A Secret Tunnel Found in Mexico May Finally Solve the Mysteries of Teotihuacan. Smithsonian.
Teotihuacan. The MET.
Ritual Sacrifice and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.
Defining Teotihuacan; Findings shed new light on ancient city. Arizona State University.