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Teotihuacan: The (Other) Largest City in Mesoamerica

Written by Nicholas Suarez



The pre-Columbian Americas contained some of the most sophisticated cultures in the world. In South America, the Inca Empire created one of the largest empires in the world, connected by roads which were constructed without the use of the wheel. In Central America, the Mayan cultures achieved one of the most comprehensive understandings of astronomy anywhere on Earth, even better than the ancient Greeks for which many celestial bodies are named.

But one area in particular stands out. The Valley of Mexico, the site of present-day Mexico City, was once one of the most densely populated regions in the entire American continent. In fact, it still is – Mexico City is the second-largest city in the western hemisphere. (It’s São Paulo, before you go and Google it.)

This area was also one of the most diverse in the Americas, perhaps anywhere on earth. Dozens of different Mesoamerican cultures lived in this area over the course of centuries, interacting, trading, and warring. It was also in this region that some of the largest cities in the world emerged, including one that is often overlooked. This is the story of Teotihuacan, the ancient city that was once the largest in Mesoamerica.

Birthplace of the Gods


Before we get started, we need to make a disclaimer. Relatively speaking, Teotihuacan is one of the less-well understood archaeological sites in Mesoamerica, and there’s a significant number of details that are still being debated by experts. A lot of the research that has been done is also decades old, and while that’s not inherently a bad thing, a lot can change in forty years. We’ll be giving you an overview of some of the research, but just be aware that there’s quite a bit of work going on behind the scenes. With that out of the way, let’s begin.

One of the most intriguing things about Teotihuacan is that its name – Teotihuacan – is not its own. The name comes from the Aztecs, who only emerged centuries after the city had fallen into ruin and they’d repopulated the area. Cities falling into ruin and being abandoned is surprisingly common in the pre-Columbian Americas, so this by itself isn’t particularly special, but it does mean that whatever the original name of the city was, it’s been effectively lost to history.

With that in mind, the best we currently have are its Nahuatl, or Aztec, names. The conventionally accepted name, “Teotihuacan”, roughly translates to “city of the gods”, or “birthplace of the gods”. It’s not exactly that, but that’s how translations go sometimes. Some experts believe the city might’ve been called “Teohuacan”, meaning “city of the sun”, reasoning that the name might’ve been changed to Teotihuacan by later Spanish colonists. Why they did that, or even whether they did that, is still subject to debate. For now, we’ll call it Teotihuacan to keep things simple.

Moving on, the first human settlements in the area that would become Teotihuacan were established around 600 BCE, and it remained nothing but a collection of small villages for several hundred years, with an estimated population of around 6000 people. A far cry from what it would later become, but we all have to start somewhere.

Which Mesoamerican culture actually founded these villages, or indeed, the later city, is also a matter of debate. For a time, it was believed that the Toltecs had founded it, but that ultimately didn’t pass the timeline check; the Toltecs only became powerful centuries after Teotihuacan had declined. Other suggestions have been put forward in their place, but ultimately, the evidence on the ground is scant for most of them, and there’s a big reason for that. More on that very soon.

For now, the city began to take shape starting in the year 200 BCE, when more people began to settle down in the Teotihuacan Valley, on the northeastern shore of Lake Texcoco. The current working theory for what happened next goes like this: the early settlement of Teotihuacan was a rival of a lesser known city, called Cuicuilco, also situated near Lake Texcoco. But at one point – some sources say around 100 BCE, other sources say around 300 AD – a nearby volcano, Xitle, erupted, which devastated Cuicuilco. More recent research suggests there might have even been multiple eruptions from multiple volcanoes, but at the moment, we aren’t certain.

Whatever the case, there was probably an eruption, and it probably caused the land to become inhospitable enough for the inhabitants of Cuicuilco to migrate north, towards Teotihuacan. These refugees then assimilated into the city’s population, facilitating its initial growth as a settlement.

Whether that theory is true or not, that initial story leads us into perhaps the single most interesting fact about Teotihuacan as a city, and the reason it’s so difficult to decipher who originally built it – throughout its history, Teotihuacan was a migrant capital.


The Land of Opportunity

For the longest time, human cities only managed to grow because of immigration; the net increase of new arrivals outstripped the natural deaths that came with so many people living in one place. Teotihuacan was this principle, scaled to eleven: a large portion of the new arrivals came locally, from the Valley of Mexico, but there is also a plethora of archaeological evidence showing that people of many different cultures came to Teotihuacan to live and work within the city.

How do we know this? Archaeologists have used methods ranging from the old-fashioned, such as identifying the differences in art or architecture, to the complex, including isotope ratio testing to determine if human remains were native to Teotihuacan or not. The result is a clear trend that many of the city’s inhabitants were immigrants, and it was this constant influx of new people that allowed the city to grow despite the high mortality rates that came with lacking modern medicine. In at least one neighborhood, four-fifths of the tested skeletons were found to have immigrated to the city from somewhere else.

These new people came from all over Mesoamerica. That previous neighborhood was predominantly composed of people from the Oaxaca region, of the Zapotec culture. There were also those of Mixtec culture, from Puebla and Oaxaca, as well as the Mayans further east, in the Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala. The Mayans in particular are believed to have shared a special connection with Teotihuacan, with the city significantly influencing Mayan culture.

This immigration hugely contributed to the explosive growth of the city between the turn of the millennium and 650 AD. Over this time period, the city grew to a population of anywhere between 60,000 and 125,000 people. This would’ve made it the largest city in Mesoamerica, and one of the largest cities on Earth at the time; for context, the more famous Tenochtitlan was not founded until 1325, seven centuries later.

So, what were all these people doing? Well, living and working, like anywhere else. It’s believed that the various ethnic groups inhabiting the city lived in mostly segregated neighborhoods, physically separated from each other. It’s believed that the different ethnic groups spoke multiple languages, and as such, their interaction with each other was limited.

Yet they still interacted. Primarily, this took the form of exchanging goods and presumably services; this is evidenced by artifacts from other parts of the city being found in the different neighborhoods. The city was also divided in terms of class, with elites living in different parts of the city than workers. Keep that point in the back of your mind; it becomes important later.


In economic terms, Teotihuacan was driven by agriculture, fed from the nearby Lake Texcoco and surrounding rivers and growing things like maize, beans, and tomatoes. This was the primary industry, but there was also a healthy crafts community for various specialized work, including textiles, stonecutting, pottery, and, most notably, obsidian. Obsidian crafting is a well-studied facet of old Mesoamerican cultures, and Teotihuacan is believed to have been famous for it during its time, producing obsidian artworks, tools, and weapons.

All of this gave the city a huge amount of influence, perhaps the most of any state in Mesoamerica until the Aztec Empire centuries later. Architectural styles native to the city can be found all over the region, in the historic homelands of many different Mesoamerican cultures. Some scholars believe that this implies Teotihuacan styles were desirable enough to copy them, and it’s understandable why – monuments in the city were magnificent. Some of them remain to this day, including the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, and the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon.

There’s also some evidence to suggest that the city was militarily powerful, as well. In the 1980s, hundreds of human sacrifices were found beneath the aforementioned Temple of the Feathered Serpent, and it’s possible they were captives, taken from somewhere else in battle. What’s more, some old Mayan inscriptions speak of a Teotihuacano ruler who installed relatives of his as lords of some Mayan cities as far south as Guatemala. That’s a huge distance to project power over, meaning Teotihuacan’s rulers must have had quite a large military.

It should be noted, however, that this conclusion is rather dubious, as it comes from a source that may or may not be accurate. But there’s another reason that may surprise you. You see, aside from that Mayan inscription, there is, at least so far, little evidence of a monarchy in Teotihuacan, or a similar type of government where power was concentrated in one individual. In other words, Teotihuacan might not have been a monarchy at all.

Of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation, and all that; just because we can’t find sufficient evidence of a monarchy, doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. This is the same reason we can’t assume the city didn’t have a military, just because we can’t find military buildings like walls or fortifications. But contemporary cultures, including Mayan cities, did have such evidence, making its absence in Teotihuacan all the more conspicuous. It’s enough of a salient point for experts to hypothesize that the city might have been ruled by some kind of collective governance, which would’ve been very unique for Mesoamerica, and indeed the rest of the world.

So, to recap – one of the largest cities in the world, consisting of migrants from all over the region, with a huge cultural impact and possibly even lacking a monarchy. Next you’ll tell me they were communist, too. Teotihuacan is, undeniably, one of the most interesting chapters in the history of Mesoamerica. Even, as it seems, in how it came to an end.

Ghosts of the Dead


Teotihuacan reached the zenith of its power in the 5th and 6th centuries. But after this period, the city began to decline, until it suddenly, rapidly depopulated and was abandoned. Again, cities in the pre-Columbian Americas were abandoned quite often, relatively speaking. But what happened to Teotihuacan?

There’s a few answers, as the precise details are not known for sure. For the longest time, it was believed that the city was invaded, sacked, and burned; there was evidence on the ground showing that something like this did happen. But this is where things get interesting. Upon closer inspection, the buildings that had received the most damage were specifically the buildings where the city’s elite resided. The worker’s neighborhoods, by contrast, showed little of the same evidence. In other words, this wasn’t an invasion – it was an uprising. But why? What had been going wrong?

As said before, there’s evidence that Teotihuacan had started to decline in population at the start of the 6th century, meaning people either stopped coming or even started leaving. One theory names climate change as a reason for this: in the years 535-536 CE, it’s believed that a massive volcanic eruption took place somewhere on Earth, possibly in El Salvador, causing global temperatures to drop sharply. This might have caused a severe crunch in agriculture, through droughts and other extreme natural phenomena, causing unrest. Further evidence to support this theory has been found in skeletal remains of young people who apparently suffered from malnutrition.

Other explanations go that Teotihuacan started to see new regional rivals, competing with the city for dominance. This might’ve caused prospective migrants to seek other areas, and Teotihuacan being a migrant city, this would’ve been understandably a problem. Whatever the true story is, it seems likely that much of Teotihuacan was destroyed in the 6th century; though it continued to be inhabited afterwards, it never again reached the power it once had.

But the city didn’t die. Though it was no longer powerful, it was still believed to be important to the cultures of the Valley of Mexico, in accordance with the legacy of the once-great city. One culture in particular may have found that legacy compelling – the Aztecs. In the 13th century, migrants repopulated the area around the city, putting it under the sway of the growing Aztec cities on the western shore of Lake Texcoco.

The Aztecs may have identified the former city as the location where the gods created the universe, and they gave it the name it is known by today. For the next few centuries, the city was a place of pilgrimage, with Aztec rulers believed to be making regular journeys to the city in accordance with religious duties – until in 1519, when a small Spanish ship appeared off the coast of Veracruz.

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