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Teotihuacan: Central Mexico Empire With Wide Influence into Maya Regions.
A huge city was built in the Basin of Mexico, not far northeast of modern Mexico City. It flourished in these highlands between 150 BCE-650 CE, and for much of that time it was the largest city in pre-Columbian Americas. Population at its height was estimated at 125,000, making it among the world’s top 10 cities at the time. The architecture and layout were unique. There were multi-family residential compounds, apartments of several stories, towering pyramids, streets laid out in a grid pattern, and a 1.3 mile-long central avenue bordered by splendid elite residences. Today Teotihuacan is the most visited archeological site in Mexico. Over 4 million people from around the world come each year. Visitors marvel at the immense Pyramid of the Sun, the elaborate Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcoatl), and the long straight avenue leading to the Pyramid of the Moon. They stroll into the past through chambers and patios of the partially reconstructed
Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, and ponder the vibrant murals and fine obsidian tools made by ancient artists and craftsmen. The site covers 32 square miles and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
The original name of the city is unknown. The Aztecs who came nearly 1,000 years later named it the Nahuatl word Teotihuacan, “place where gods were born.” They believed the gods created the universe at that location. The Classic Maya wrote its name in hieroglyphic texts, calling it puh,”Place of Reeds.” Such places were considered the locus of creation, which took place in swampy, reedy, and watery locations. These creation locations are also referred to as Tollan or Tula. Rich soils from swamps supported agriculture, and early settlers constructed raised beds called chinampas.
Who Were the Teotihuacanos?
The advanced culture that created Teotihuacan did not leave any writings in the strict sense. They used signs or symbols; 229 have been cataloged but their meanings are mostly unknown. Our understanding of their civilization comes from study of buildings and pottery, placed in context of what is known of regional settlements.
Around 500 BCE several urban centers arose in central Mexico. The most prominent was Cuicuilco, with a population of 20,000 located on the south shore of Lake Texcoco. A volcano called Xitle erupted around 400-200 BCE and covered this city in ashes, prompting mass emigration toward the north valley. Researchers think that other peoples joined this migration from 13 small regional villages. There was a huge eruption of the volcano Popocatepetl in 200-1 BCE, forcing survivors in the Amecameca-Chalco-Xochimilco regions to migrate. Maybe Teotihuacan leaders capitalized on the Volcano Gods’ sparing their area of the valley to entice more settlers. The earliest buildings at Teotihuacan date to around 200 BCE, and the Pyramid of the Sun was completed by 100 CE.
Teotihuacan expert George Cowgill reports that “the people who first built and occupied Teotihuacan were simply some of the people whose ancestors had already lived for millennia in Mesoamerica.” (Cowgill, Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico, 2015) He believes that asking who were the Teotihuacanos is a false issue; the better questions involve why and how the city and the state it ruled flourished so long, looking at its sociopolitical system, religion and ideology, environmental factors, and commercial enterprises. Teotihuacan built on the urban tradition already developed at Cuicuilco, stretching back to 500 BCE with Monte Alban in Oaxaca.
Teotihuacan Empire Lasted 800 Years
The city reached its zenith in 250-550 CE. Its population leveled off, the main structures were in place, and the city’s southern section filled in with about 2,300 residential compounds that housed people from all around its realm of influence. There were enclaves with foreign connections and craft specialists, including styles from highland Oaxaca, the Gulf Lowlands, the Maya area, and Michoacan to the west. There were distinct quarters occupied by Mixtec, Maya, Otomi, Zapotec, and Nahua people. The city’s influence continued to expand with growing political complexity. Early political institutions may have been collective, but the sheer scale of civic-ceremonial structures suggest talented and charismatic leaders responsible for the largest pyramids and increased human
sacrifice. They reached beyond the Basin of Mexico seeking resources, with outposts 124 miles to the west, and by 200 CE Teotihuacan had presences as far away as Pacific coastal Guatemala. Their tendrils reached far south to Maya preclassic sites such as Kaminaljuyu and Abak Takalik. Around 250 CE a burial in Altun Ha, Belize held 243 pieces of green obsidian from Teotihuacan’s mines in Pachuca. Altun Ha was a large-scale center for jade carving, obtained from mines in the Motugua Valley in southeastern Guatemala. Teotihuacan coveted jade and such elite trade goods underlay the empire’s expansion. This spurred greater incursion into Maya regions.
The Maya “Entrada.”
Just over 100 years later, in 378 CE, a group from Teotihuacan changed Maya history in the Peten region. A warlord named Siyaj K’ak (Fire is Born, Smoking Frog) led his warriors to overcome Maya cities of Uaxactun and El Peru. From there his warriors entered Tikal, a venerable city and major power, and the death of Tikal’s ruler Chak Tok Ich’aak on that same day was recorded. The next ruler was Yax Nuun Ayin, the son of a Teotihuacan lord or ruler called Spearthrower Owl (translated in Mayan as Jatz’om Kuh). It is thought Yax Nuun Ayin married into the local Tikal dynasty, perhaps a royal woman named Une Balam who may have been the Tikal ruler’s daughter. (Janice Van Cleve, “Who Was Queen Une Balam?”) Tikal Stela 31 records these events; shortly afterwards Teotihuacan imagery and building styles such as talud-tablero architecture appeared in Tikal.
Less than 50 years later Teotihuacan influence spread south to Copan, Honduras. Yax K’uk Mo’ (First Quetzal Macaw) was a warrior who spent his early years near Tikal, according to strontium isotope analysis of his bones. He became the “first” ruler of Copan in 426 CE, although there must have been a local dynasty since the city had existed for years. He is portrayed in typical
Teotihuacan battle dress wearing the “goggle-eye” mask typical for the god Tlaloc. He was buried in a rich grave inside Temple 16, and his image has first position in the carvings on Altar Q showing 16 rulers of Copan. His descendants attributed Teotihuacano heritage to their founding ruler. Yax K’uk Mo’ possibly accompanied Siyaj K’ak in the earlier invasion of Tikal as a youth, and continued to spread Teotihuacan’s reach to important jade sources in the Motagua River region. He installed a vassal who had traveled with him, named Tok Casper, at nearby Quirigua. Both these settlements lie on the river network leading from the Motagua Valley to the Caribbean Sea. This gave links for Teotihuacan to control the jade trade.
Variants of the Teotihuacan talud-tablero building style are found in Tikal, Kaminaljuyu, Copan, Becan, and Oxkintok, especially in the Peten Basin and central Guatemala highlands.
Reasons for Teotihuacan’s success appear to be built into their sociopolitical and religious systems. Some experts think they offered a new, attractive world view that blended religion and government in a unique way. The extensive urban planning and awe-inspiring monuments still observable today provide testimony to this well formed civic-spiritual ideal. The Teotihuacano fusion of extreme religious rituals that included human sacrifice, formalized social structure, and astute political organization formed a powerful matrix that controlled the lives of all who lived within it, and many in distant locales. How closely the ruling elite administered outposts is debated; more likely their agents influenced trade arrangements and local dynastic politics. Cultural diffusion led to adoption of Teotihuacan styles and traits to emulate the powerful empire.
Collapse of an Empire
The enigmatic leaders of Teotihuacan appear by the mid-500s to hold sway over much of Mesoamerica. They mainly accomplished this through political alliances and vassal rulers. By controlling trade networks, they kept the Teotihucano people well fed and living in comparative luxury in an advanced city with running water, sewers, brick homes, neighborhood communities, and multi-level residences. Public rituals with human sacrifice that played out before thousands of viewers maintained priesthood and elite power. Eventually the system did fail by 650 CE. As with collapse of other major civilizations, a number of factors were involved. Perhaps most insidious was internal competition between priests, elites, and leaders. Resources were siphoned off from central government, weakening the discipline and social control systems. A series of long droughts occurred around 535-536 CE, with evidence of famine and malnutrition. It is possible the eruption of the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador in 535 CE created climate changes. There was increased warfare and internal unrest. Popular rebellion led to burning elite dwellings and major civic structures along the Avenue of the Dead. Sculptures inside palaces were shattered. Population declined to 20,000 and Teotihuacan’s power diminished. Many of the elite may have fled the city, going on to create new cultural centers to the south. Other nearby centers such as Cholula, Xochicalco, and Cacaxtla competed to fill the power void. This led to rise of the Totonac, Toltec, and later Aztec peoples.
In October 2018 I visited Teotihuacan for the first time–it was on my bucket list! I went with archeologist Edwin Barnhart on his Maya Exploration Center tour of Basin of Mexico sites. No better way to experience and learn about ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Visit Maya Exploration Center for more information. Dr. Barnhart also made a video lecture series for Great Courses on Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed.
George Cowgill. Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Edwin Barnhart. Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed. The Great Courses, 2017.
Simon Martin & Nikolai Grube. Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens. Thames & Hudson, 2000.
David Stuart. “The Arrival of Strangers.” Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History. PARI Online Publications, Newsletter #25, July 1998.
Janice Van Cleve. “Who Was Queen Une Balam?” Research Paper published online, 2003. http://www.mayas.doodlekit.com
Leonide Martin. Facebook Page Photo Album, November 2018. https://www.facebook.com/leonide.martin
Balboa Park, San Diego Museum of Natural History.
While in San Diego for the holidays in December, 2016, I spent a mesmerizing afternoon in the Maya Exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, Balboa Park. This wonderful display of Maya monuments, ceramics, and art had many original pieces on loan from other institutions, as well as reproductions of murals and larger monuments. In this blogpost, I’ll focus on ceramics, adornment and artwork.
The Mayas produced a wide variety of beautiful and intricately designed ceramics. Artists were allowed quite a free range of expression, their designs varying from one workshop to another. Artistic quality was more valued than adherence to standardized forms, and certain artists’ works were in high demand among elite. Some artists signed their works, or named the bowls for their owners and functions: “The cacao drinking vase of Ahau Ukib.” These vessels with detailed scenes were used in the form of straight-sided beakers for drinking chocolate mixed with chili peppers, or as bowls for food. Often they
were used as grave offerings in the tombs of their owners. Simpler and more utilitarian vessels were used by commoners.
To produce pottery, the Mayas used a device that rotated between the potters’ feet, called a kabal. An early ceramic style, called Amyan, appeared in the Guatemalan highlands around 1,000 BCE. It was monochrome with simple design. Originally the Mayas used gourds cut into cup and bowl shapes, and the first ceramics resembled gourds. These were decorated with rocker stamps and simple slips for color. By the Early Classic (250-550 CE) the ceramic style Tzakol developed with more complex jars, plates, bowls and vases having polychrome decorations. This style evolved into Tepeu of the Late Classic (550-700 CE) with more elaborate scenes and color variations. The polychrome slip paint was of various colors, made from plant and mineral sources. Predominant colors are red, orange, black, brown, yellow and cream. These two ceramic styles are considered the most beautiful made in ancient Mesoamerica, primarily depicting animal deities, grotesque monsters, nobles and priests, ceremonial activities, and scenes of sacrifice. New shapes were developed, including the lidded basal flange bowl, which usually had a knob on top in the form of an animal or human head. The painted body of this being often spreads across the pot. Many also had tetrapod legs for support, called “mammiform” since they resembled animal or human legs.
An especially valued polychrome called “Codex style” was produced during the late Classic re-occupation of the pre-Classic sites El Mirador and Nakbe in Guatemala. These ceramics are characterized by scenes and glyphic texts drawn in dark lines on cream-colored backgrounds, usually framed by red bands on the
edges of the vessels. This gives them a resemblance to the post-Classic Maya Codex texts. This fine painted Codex-style pottery depicts extraordinary mythological scenes, and is highly sought by antiquities collectors, accounting for extensive looting of house mound complexes in Peten. In ancient times, these ceramics were in demand by elites, and have been found throughout the Maya regions.
Figurines and Effigies
The Mayas created many small figurines, busts and effigies that represented deities, specific individuals, symbolic monsters or creatures, or roles in society. Materials used to create them include clay, limestone, sandstone, trachyte, wood, jade, bone, shell, and copper. Very few artifacts were made of gold. As these often depict typical activities of ancient Maya life, archaeologists have learned much about costumes, musical instruments, religious rituals, household customs, ballgames, warfare and sacrifice. Among the most well known figurines are those from Jaina, an island off the coast of Campeche, Mexico, used for elite burials.
Figurines were painted with the usual plant and mineral pigments. A unique shade of blue appears on some figurines, and in many murals and codices. Called “Maya blue,” it is the most durable Maya color and has only recently been reproduced. The ancient Mayas combined skills in organic chemistry and mineralogy in their technique for creating Maya blue. The pigment is a composite of organic and inorganic constituents, primarily indigo dyes derived from the leaves of the anil (Indigofera) plant, combined with palygorskite, a natural clay. The mix is cooked at low temperature (100 degrees C) until its color turns from blackish to this exquisite sky blue. Other trace elements are present, including copal incense, leading to the idea that producing Maya blue was a sacred process. Copal, resin of a native tree, is dried into incense and burned in symbolic “incensarios” during ceremonies. Using copal in making Maya blue produces the low heat necessary, and imbues the pigment with sacred qualities.
Jewelry and Body Decoration
Body adornment was very important to ancient Mayas. They dressed in lavish costumes, wore huge and heavy jewelry, wore complex headdresses with feathers and decorations, had earplugs that needed a balance weight behind, and often embedded gems in their teeth. Facial scarification was also used along with body painting. The Mayas excelled in working with jade, which was highly prized, as it represented the green vibrancy of new plants and the azure of water. Excavations of tombs have yielded large amounts of jade jewelry, mosaics, masks, effigies, plaques and small figures. Royal burials rich in these items have been found in several Maya sites, particularly Palenque, El Peru-Waka, and Tonina. Metal work did not make a significant appearance until after 900 CE, the Post-Classic Period. The Mayas mostly worked in copper, with a small amount of gold appearing as bowls, cups, rings, and effigies. Other items made from copper include bells, tweezers, axes, earplugs, rings, discs, and small masks.