Teotihuacán, the preeminent center of religious, economic, and political power in central Mexico from approximately 100 bce to 750 ce. The site of this ancient city is about 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, in the Valley of Mexico, a temperate, semiarid region in the central Mexican highlands. At its height (500–600 ce) it was home to at least 125,000 inhabitants and covered 7 to 8 square miles. As the first "true city" in the New World, Teotihuacán represented an unprecedented social transformation and had a significant impact on all subsequent pre-Columbian civilizations in Mexico.
Teotihuacán was above all the seat of a vigorous religion whose most sacred precepts were played out in the construction of a monumental ceremonial center that was the setting for ritual performances and extravaganzas, often including human sacrifice. A wide, north-south thoroughfare, the Street of the Dead, bisected the center and provided the basic orientation (1525' east of north) to which virtually all later ceremonial and residential construction conformed. Three immense pyramid complexes dominate its core: the Pyramid of the Moon, at the north end of the Street of the Dead; the Pyramid of the Sun, along its east side; and the Ciudadela, the city's administrative center, on the southeast. Directly opposite the Ciudadela is an enormous enclosure that served as the central marketplace. Scores of smaller temple platforms lining the Street of the Dead and elsewhere are built in a style found only in Teotihuacán.
The city's population grew rapidly during the period of major pyramid construction. Its growth involved the massive, planned resettlement of most of the region's rural inhabitants within its limits and the immigration of many foreign residents, probably emissaries and merchants. Problems of housing and administering this diverse agglomeration of people were met through the construction of more than 2,000 stone-walled apartment compounds organized into barrios. Most of these single-story, windowless structures housed from 60 to 100 people and contained a number of separate apartments consisting of rooms and porticoes arranged around open patios.
At least two-thirds of the urban population were farmers who cultivated land around the city, utilizing the valley's permanent springs for irrigation. Staples such as corn and beans, along with a variety of wild plants, game, and domesticated dog and turkey, constituted the city's food supply. Another large segment of the population were full-time craftsmen involved in ceramic production and the working of obsidian, bone, and feathers. Others were plasterers, painters, warriors, merchants, or bureaucrats. At the apex of this highly stratified society were priest-rulers who governed in the name of the gods.
The Teotihuacán state exercised strong control over its economy, managing (to varying degrees) critical resources, production, and exchange both within the Valley of Mexico and beyond. For example, the distribution of green obsidian for the city's vital obsidian industry was regulated, and many workshops are thought to have been under direct state control. Even some items produced far outside of the city, such as the popular thin orange pottery, appear to have been marketed through the city. Although Teotihuacán's long-distance trade and foreign relations are poorly understood, the impact of the city was felt as far away as the Maya area in Guatemala.
Sometime in the eighth century the ceremonial heart of Teotihuacán was systematically burned and destroyed; the citizens may have been involved. The population fell sharply, its great culture disintegrated, and the city never regained its former eminence.
See alsoArchaeology .
René Millón, R. Bruce Drewitt, and George L. Cowgill, Urbanization at Teotihuacán, Mexico. Vol. 1, The Teotihuacán Map (1973), pts. 1 and 2.
William T. Sanders, Jeffrey R. Parsons, and Robert S. Santley, The Basin of Mexico: Ecological Processes in the Evolution of a Civilization (1979).
René Millón, "Teotihuacán: City, State, and Civilization," in Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians. Vol. 1, Archaeology, edited by Victoria R. Bricker and Jeremy A. Sabloff (1981), 198-243.
George L. Cowgill, "Rulership and the Ciudadela: Political Inferences from Teotihuacán Architecture," in Civilization in the Ancient Americas: Essays in Honor of Gordon R. Willey, edited by Richard M. Leventhal and Alan L. Kolata (1983), pp. 313-343.
René Millón, "The Last Years of Teotihuacán Dominance," in The Collapse of Ancient States and Civilizations, edited by Norman Yoffee and George L. Cowgill (1988), pp. 102-164.
Ruben Cabrera Castro, Saburo Sugiyama, and George L. Cowgill, "The 'Templo de Quetzalcoatl' Project at Teotihuacán," in Ancient Mesoamerica 2, no. 1 (1991).
Braswell, Geoffrey E. The Maya and Teotihuacan: Reinterpreting Early Classic Interaction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Carrasco, David, Lindsay Jones, and Scott Sessions. Mesoamerica's Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1999.
López Austin, Alfredo, and Leonardo López Luján. Mexico's Indigenous Past. Trans. Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.
Pasztory, Esther. Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
Sempowski, Martha Lou, and Michael W. Spence. Mortuary Practices and Skeletal Remains at Teotihuacan, vol. 3. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994.
Martha L. Sempowski
Type of Government
Teotihuacán, meaning “abode of the gods” in Aztec, was a major city-state of the Classic period (second to tenth centuries) in central and southern Mexico. While little is known about Teotihuacán’s system of government, it appears to have celebrated community well-being over individual prestige and power, a tendency that was reflected in its carefully planned and executed public buildings, boulevards, and residences.
Located in central Mexico just northeast of modern-day Mexico City, Teotihuacán was settled by the Toltec people, who dominated the area before the Aztecs. The Classic period in Mexico was distinguished by intense agricultural cultivation and marked differences in regional arts and crafts. Teotihuacán was also distinguished by the sheer size of its many public monuments and the depth and rigor of its urban planning. The city offered orderly, elegant, and spacious urban living to a cosmopolitan population that valued art and beauty.
In the first century BC there were between twenty thousand and forty thousand people living in Teotihuacán. As the population of the region became more concentrated, the number of city inhabitants grew to more than 125,000 people. During the next seven hundred years Teotihuacán grew into one of the three largest cities in the history of the New World, exceeded only by the Inca capital of Cuzco and the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán. Between 200 and 300 a massive urban renewal project restructured and reorganized the city. All streets and structures, both public and residential, were laid out on a grid crisscrossed by two great avenues. Each urban block consisted of a single walled residence inhabited by a large extended family. The smallest walled compounds housed around twenty, and the largest close to one hundred. Buildings were constructed of porous chunks of volcanic stone, clay, cut stone, massive logs, and mortar. All surfaces were covered with earth, gravel, and stucco, and interior surfaces with a thin layer of plaster, followed by a coating of lime wash. Impressive murals, often depicting rain gods, animals, and religious ceremonies, decorated the interior walls of public buildings and private residences.
At least a third of the city’s residential compounds are thought to have been inhabited by artisans. Even though the region’s farmers and merchants also contributed to the city’s prosperity, the abundance of works created by artisans reflects the importance Teotihuacán’s people placed on art and beauty, and in the absence of written records, they may reflect what its citizens emphasized in their social and political organization. Many of the works left behind by artisans are highly standardized in form and structure, but their decoration or embellishment varies greatly. This dichotomy has been seen as a reflection of Teotihuacán’s society: highly structured, yet celebrating and acknowledging the importance of individual vision and expression.
Trade, agriculture, and artisanship ruled everyday life in Teotihuacán, and influenced the growth of political entities and structures, but little is known about how government in Teotihuacán actually functioned. Some historians believe that the influx of the Valley of Mexico’s population into the city, combined with the success of agriculture and the beginnings of long-distance trade, brought prosperity that enabled the city’s commercial and religious elite to establish authority over the common people. Members of the elite classes may have been aware that their authority rested on the appeal and success of their community life, however, and been reluctant to abuse their authority or control needlessly. At first, no single family or clan assumed leadership, but in the third or fourth century a powerful family seems to have emerged from among Teotihuacán’s important families and led efforts to redesign the city by putting an impressive palace symbolically at its center. Burial grounds excavated near this palace, known as the Citadel, support the theory of a prominent family. As the ruling family’s power was consolidated over time, it had less and less need for monumental displays of power, and together the rulers and the ruled turned to the more practical aspects of living. What remains in the material record of excavations and artifacts suggests the emergence of a Teotihuacán bureaucracy as organized as the carefully laid out city grid. This bureaucracy functioned effectively for more than four hundred years, until the collapse of Teotihuacán in 750.
Construction of Teotihuacán’s major public monuments was completed in 100. The Pyramid of the Sun reached two hundred feet tall and seven hundred feet wide at its base. It was joined by the terraced Ciudadela, the site of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent god). Nearby lay the Great Compound, an immense public square estimated to hold more than one hundred thousand people.
Teotihuacán was Mexico’s first true urban civilization, and its influence reached cities throughout Mexico and beyond into Guatemala. Unknown factors, rumored to have been epidemics, climatic changes, earthquakes, popular revolts, or crop failures, led to its significant decline after 700. By 750 the urban population had dwindled to between thirty and forty thousand people. The people of other cities in the region, such as Cholula, Tajin, and Xochicalco, carried on Teotihuacán’ traditions, eventually bringing them to the Toltec capital city of Tula.
Adams, Richard E. W. Prehistoric Mesoamerica. 3rd ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.
Pasztory, Esther. Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.