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Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan: History, Culture, and Other Facts

Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan: History, Culture, and Other Facts
Teotihuacan is the name of a pre-Columbian city located in the valley of Mexico. Whether it was the Aztecs, Spaniards, or the archaeologists of today, the city has left everyone spellbound. Be it the origin, lifestyle of its inhabitants, or even its downfall, every aspect of this civilization is shrouded in mystery. The city boasts of breathtaking monuments and a layout designed to perfection.
Akshay Chavan
Last Updated: Sep 25, 2017
Did You Know?
Only priests were allowed to climb the steps of the both the Teotihuacan pyramids.
Some monuments in Teotihuacan have been built according to strict geometric standards, such as the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. Others like the Quetzalcoatl temple, also called the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent have been constructed in a rich artistic style of the highest caliber. In fact, the artistic standards of the murals have even drawn comparisons with the Renaissance art style of Italy.

Archaeologists are also baffled by the layout of the city and design of the monuments, which coincides with specific angles that have astrological significance. The lifestyle of the Teotihuacan people and their cultural penchant for cruelty has also drawn the eyes of the world to this civilization. Several recent discoveries have unearthed mass graves of humans that were ritually decapitated or even buried alive with their hands bound to their backs. With no written manuscripts or hieroglyphs ever found in Teotihuacan, the suspense revolving around the city is quite natural. Here are some amazing Teotihuacan facts about their rise and fall.
Teotihuacan is the site of an ancient Pre-Aztec civilization that is situated around 30 miles to the northeast of present-day Mexico. The city is said to have been built in the 1st and 2nd century AD, and was one of the world's most highly populated and sprawling cities of that time.
It was supposedly destroyed around 750 AD and set ablaze, following which only a part of the city was inhabited for a while, until the entire city was deserted. It was then discovered by the Aztecs several hundred years later, who called the civilization 'Teotihuacan', which is literally translated as 'the birthplace of the gods', since they thought this was the site where the gods created the universe.

The region was inhabited since 400 BC, but urbanization of Teotihuacan is thought to have started only in the 1st and 2nd century AD, by the Totonac people. The city was constructed and inhabited by migrants from Cuicuilco, a city that had been destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Xitle. The ethnicity of the Teotihuacan people has been heavily disputed, but it is thought that they were multi-ethnic, drawing a population from various races. Different quarters in the city were occupied by individual tribes, such as Zapotec, Otomi, Nahua, and Mayan.

After the Teotihuacan civilization declined, it was never lost to the outside world. While the Aztecs discovered it several centuries later, and revered it as a pilgrimage site, the city was occupied for a while by trespassers. The Spanish conquerors, on discovering the site, were left speechless. The first archaeological expedition visited the city in the latter part of the 17th century during Spanish rule, led by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora. Despite this, the first surveys were carried out in 1864, and further excavation began in 1894. A lengthy period of archaeological study was undertaken during 1905 to 1910 by Leopoldo Batres, who renovated the Pyramid of the Sun and added a fifth pier. This renovation work was hastily performed, to ring in the first hundred years of Mexican independence in 1910. Further excavations were performed in the 1960s and '70s, during which, underground structures were discovered. In 1987, UNESCO declared Teotihuacan as a World Heritage Site.
Layout of Teotihuacan
The residents of Teotihuacan were polytheists, and worshiped several gods, the temples of which can be seen throughout the city. Their primary deity is said to be the Goddess of Teotihuacan. But another one, the Plumed Serpent, also played a major role. The largest pyramidal temple in the city, the Quetzalcoatl temple, is dedicated to the feathered serpent, and bears several figureheads of the deity. The citizens of Teotihuacan and the Aztecs had similar belief systems, and worshiped the same gods. This is one of the reasons that after the demise of Teotihuacan, the Aztecs revered this site and also associated it with their myth of 'Tollan', the place where the sun was created. It served as a pilgrimage site for them.

The residents of Teotihuacan performed a large number of human sacrifices, presumably of enemy soldiers captured in battle. The person was killed by decapitation, hitting the head several times or by tearing out the heart. They also performed animal sacrifices, especially of animals considered holy, such as cougars, wolves, owls, falcons, and poisonous snakes. These creatures were trapped in a cage and then buried alive. These sacrifices are believed to have been performed before extending the size of monuments, or before constructing new ones.

The city was most probably governed by a single 'Priest-ruler' who carried out ceremonial processions from time to time, which culminated in human or animal sacrifices. Priests occupied important positions in the government, and their higher status is revealed by exquisite plaster and mural-work on the exterior of their residences.

Though not a single military structure has been discovered in Teotihuacan, surprisingly, some archaeologists believe that the city had a high militaristic influence in the region, pointing out the similarities in architecture between Teotihuacan and other Meso-American civilizations. This militaristic influence is believed to have extended right up till Honduras. The city also had trade, artistic, and cultural relations with distant regions. Up to two-thirds of the residents were thought to be farmers, while others worked with stones like obsidian and ceramic materials, to fashion out articles for daily use, tools, and weapons.
Skeleton in pit
Remains of Sacrificial Victims
City Layout and Architecture
The city of Teotihuacan extended for almost 14 square miles, and had many large monuments, which were designed by strict geometric principles. The second-largest pyramid of the New World; the Pyramid of the Sun is also located here. The city, at its zenith, around 2nd century AD, was inhabited by anywhere between 150,000 to 250,000 people.
It had several large compounds containing multistory buildings to accommodate its large population. One such compound discovered could even house 50 to 60 families.

The city contained one major street which was named 'The Avenue of the Dead' by the Aztecs, since it was lined with shelves that they thought were tombs of the dead. Archaeologists have concluded that these were rather used for ceremonial reasons on which temples were later constructed. Teotihuacan consists of around 2000-odd residential quarters, plazas, temples, and one canal system on the San Juan river. The Avenue of the Dead extended for around 1.5 miles, and was roughly oriented in a north-south direction.

It was lined on both sides by platforms constructed in a style called the Talud-tablero fashion. In this style, the 'Talud' is a sloping structure on which rectangular panels called a 'Tablero' are constructed. This is a distinctive style of Teotihuacan architecture. The city was planned in such a way that its axis was oriented at an angle of 15.5° East of North, to enable the dwellers to decide the best time for sowing crops and performing ceremonies. This angle was chosen because the sun rises on this angle on a particular day of summer, each year.

Along the Avenue of the Dead on the eastern side was a plaza of temples built inside a great complex, named La Cuidadela by the Spanish, who mistakenly thought it to be a fort. The largest and most notable of these temples is the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Cuidadela could accommodate around 100,000 people. On the eastern side of the avenue was a great compound which was thought have served as a market. The organizational complexity of this structure speaks volumes of the Teotihuacan empire.

Further along the avenue, on the eastern side is a massive pyramid, called the Pyramid of the Sun. A 1971 excavation uncovered an underground cave with side chambers below the pyramid, which is thought to have been man-made. The northern tip of the avenue is capped by another pyramid, called the Pyramid of the Moon, which though smaller than the Pyramid of the Sun, is still the second-largest structure in Teotihuacan. Towards the northeast is a structure named the Quetzalpapalotl Palace, which rather than being a single 'palace', is a collection of residences of high priests. Surprisingly, not a single military or fortified structure has been ever found in the city.
Pyramid of the Sun
Pyramid of the Sun
There are many theories given as to why the Teotihuacan civilization declined. The main reason thought for this was civil unrest. The evidence used to support this argument is the presence of charred monuments, which presumably belonged to the nobles, indicating that the lower classes probably attacked them. Another less possible hypothesis is that a foreign power attacked the city, though this is widely rejected.

Experts also point at the agricultural practices of the Teotihuacanans, which is thought to have required a generous availability of water. It is said that due to water scarcity, the city experienced large-scale failure of crops. Others also believe that droughts and famines are a common aspect during war and civil uprising.

Yet another reason given for the demise of this civilization is an outbreak of disease. Teotihuacan is located in a tropical forest, and such regions are notorious for their parasites. It is stipulated that the residents had unwittingly created an environment conducive for parasite infestation. These parasites caused infections in infants, producing extreme diarrhea, which, if the child survived, would still lead to a less healthy adulthood. Infant skeletons have been discovered that show signs of malnourishment, although this is a common sign of warfare.
Teotihuacan had a strong artistic and cultural relation in the Meso-American region of that period. While the debate on what caused such mass desertion of the city rages on, some archaeologists call it unimportant. They state that instead of focusing on their abrupt disappearance, we should try to understand how they survived for such a long time in a hostile environment. Indeed, the story of Teotihuacan and the flourishing of its people in the hostile tropical jungle has been called 'amazing' by archaeologists.