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READ: Teotihuacan and Classic Mesoamerica

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. According to the author, what are some ways that Mesoamerica differed from Afro-Eurasian regions where many of the first complex societies developed?
  2. How did the Maya overcome the environmental challenges they faced?
  3. How did a drought destabilize the authority of the Maya rulers?
  4. What are the three pyramids the author mentions in Teotihuacan? What does he suggest people used them for?
  5. What explanations does the author provide for why Teotihuacan grew so large and important?
  6. Why do we know so little about life in Teotihuacan?
  7. What are some possible explanations for Teotihuacan’s collapse?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. This article begins by making the point that not all complex societies need navigable rivers and fertile river valleys in order to develop. But the two examples the author uses (Classic Maya and Teotihuacan) both collapsed, possibly due to drought. How can you use this information to challenge the narratives in this article?
  2. Think about the area you live in. Is it an environment that could have encouraged the development of ancient complex societies? What environmental or other factors in your home town would have helped or prevented the development of cities like Teotihuacan?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Teotihuacan and Classic Mesoamerica

Aerial photo of Teotihuacan. A long, narrow road leads to a large, pyramidal structure with a staircase going up the middle. Several other smaller pyramidal structures also exist.
By Bennett Sherry
During the Classic Period of Mesoamerica, huge cities arose in the Yucatan and in the Mexican Highlands. These cities challenge many assumptions about ancient urbanization.

Introduction – No Nile? No problem!

You've probably heard that complex societies and the first cities and states arose around river valleys like the Tigris and Euphrates or the Nile. You've probably even heard that in this course. And to be fair, it makes a lot of sense. Cities need farms to produce surplus food, and rivers make farming a lot easier. We have clear evidence that navigable rivers—if they flooded predictably—helped the growth of complex, urbanized societies in places like Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China. But there's also evidence that those type of societies developed without river valleys.
For example, consider Mesoamerica (present-day Mexico and Central America). During the Classic Period1 of Mesoamerica, sometimes dated 100–900 CE, this became one of the most urbanized regions on Earth. Mesoamerica doesn't have many rivers, like the Nile over in Africa, that flood regularly and provide easy transportation. Yet, some of the earliest and largest cities in the Americas developed in Mesoamerica. This difference makes Mesoamerica a useful case to challenge narratives about why and where complex societies developed.
Map shows Teotihuacan in relation to the cities it was allied with and controlled.
A map of Mesoamerica showing the position of Teotihuacan and cities controlled by (green and black) or allied with (yellow) Teotihuacan. By Yavidaxiu, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Classic Maya

The lowlands between Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala have dense jungles, poor soil, and few large rivers, yet somehow the Maya city-states flourished there. The Maya overcame these limitations, engineering the land to redirect and store water in reservoirs and canals. They developed a system of hieroglyphics and the ancient world's most advanced mathematics, astronomy, and architecture. At their height, the various Maya city-states held about 14 million people.
Modern day image of many people visiting an ancient ruins site that features a large, tower-like structure and several smaller brick structures.
The ruins of Tikal, in the Guatemalan lowlands. Tikal was one of the largest Maya cities. Once home to tens of thousands of people. By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 3.0.
So what led to the Maya's collapse? Most likely it was the complexity of their society. The well-engineered system that collected, stored, and distributed water was controlled by a ruling class of kings and priests. So, when a series of droughts arrived in the ninth century, their authority also dried up, and the whole social pyramid collapsed. The Maya people didn't disappear—millions still live in Central America and Mexico—but the collapse destroyed many of the great Maya cities and achievements of the Classic Period.
Like many ancient societies, there is an element of guesswork in our knowledge of the Maya. Very little Mayan writing survives today—in 1562, the Spanish Bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa, had most of it burned. But still, we have more written records from the Maya than we do from the Classic Period's largest city: Teotihuacan.
A paneled, painted manuscript featuring language symbols and detailed art.
The Dresden Codex, one of the few surviving Maya manuscripts. Public domain.

Teotihuacan: City of the Gods

In the center of the Mexican Highlands, just 25 miles north of present-day Mexico City, a ruined city of divine proportions has been baffling visitors for centuries. Its people left no written records, and our only clues are the stones of ruined buildings, some artwork, and burial chambers. Oral histories collected after the Spanish conquered Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century give us some additional information. But even with these, we still don't know the original name of this massive society. In the fifteenth century, almost a thousand years after the city collapsed, people from the Aztec Empire found its ruins. Amazed, they named the city Teotihuacan, the City of the Gods.
Birds-eye photo of Teotihuacan shows the city’s two largest structures. Both are pyramid-shaped, tall, and there is a road connecting the two structures.
Teotihuacan, facing north. The Pyramid of the Moon is in the foreground, the Pyramid of the Sun in the background. The Temple of the Feathered Serpent is in the top-right corner. By JOMA-MAC, CC BY-SA 3.0.
At its peak in the fifth century CE, Teotihuacan was a city of 200,000 people, one of the largest cities in the world at the time. Its residents built three pyramids that still loom over the landscape. The Pyramid of the Sun, at 216 feet tall, is the world's third-largest pyramid. Some archaeologists believe that the top of the pyramid once held a temple to the god of fire. On the north side of the city, the Pyramid of the Moon rises 151 feet. It was built in layers over generations and holds burial chambers filled with greenstone and obsidian statues alongside the bones of humans and animals. To the south, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcóatl) is the smallest, but also the most beautifully decorated of the three. It was a center of Teotihuacan's social life. Though it is named for the carvings of the serpent god, Quetzalcóatl that line its walls, the pyramid is also decorated with reliefs of Tlaloc, the god of rain. The large central plaza of the temple might have been periodically flooded with water as part of an elaborate ritual intended to appease the gods and remind people of their rulers' control of the city's most important resource—water.
Three images show temples and structures at Teotihuacan from various viewpoints.
(From left to right) The Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon, and the plaza of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Left: From the Minneapolis College of Art and Design Library, CC BY 2.0.
Middle: By Ricardo David Sanchez, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Right: Public domain.
Teotihuacan sits in the arid Mexican highlands, where the dry season could last eight months. The average rainfall was just above the minimum needed to grow maize. Even slight variations could mean disaster and famine. But like the Maya cities, Teotihuacan survived and thrived by engineering wells and canals to collect water during the rainy seasons and irrigate during the dry season. The people living there redirected the course of the river to match the carefully planned streets of their city.
Teotihuacan might have been the largest city in Mesoamerica during the Classic Period, but it was not the only one. Dozens of other cities, including Cholula, Cantona, and Monte Albán, dotted the region. So, with plenty of other places around for people to settle, why did people settle in this particular spot and build a massive city?

Origins of Teotihuacan

Again, we don't know much about the people who built Teotihuacan, but we can make some educated guesses. Archeologist David Carballo argues that urbanization in Mesoamerica happened in two phases, and that before the Classic period there was a Formative period when market centers and trade networks developed, linking early settlements. In a way, trade might have been what urbanized Mesoamerica. Trade networks linked these small markets together, and they eventually grew into cities. Teotihuacan was the most important center of trade in Mesoamerica. Its streets and huge market were once filled with merchants and goods from distant cities.
A sharpened, blackened tool carved from obsidian.
An obsidian blade from Teotihuacan. By Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Why was Teotihuacan such a dominant economic power? Obsidian. Obsidian is a black volcanic glass used for making tools and weapons. Teotihuacan monopolized access to two nearby sources of obsidian, so they controlled most of the obsidian in the region. Metalworking was rare in Mesoamerica, so obsidian was essential to everyday life and military power. Controlling it allowed Teotihuacan to dominate regional trade.
Trade—and the presence of obsidian—is one possible reason that Teotihuacan was settled and grew so large. But there are other possibilities… if you look beneath the pyramids. Recent excavations have revealed several tunnels under the city. One spans 300 feet under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Tunnels are an important symbol in Mesoamerican religions. Scholars think they represented the passage to the underworld. The artifacts in the tunnel suggest that it was dug before the construction of the pyramids above. These tunnels indicate that Teotihuacan might have been an important religious site centuries before it became a market center or a city. People might have moved here to worship their gods or complete a religious pilgrimage long before it became a center of trade.
Whatever the reason people moved to Teotihuacan, we know from human remains that it was a city of immigrants. People from all over Mesoamerica made their home in the shadow of Teotihuacan's pyramids. We're not sure why it attracted so many different people. Maybe they came to sell goods or practice their religions. The destruction of a nearby city in a volcanic eruption might have sent refugees to Teotihuacan. Many others probably arrived as enslaved prisoners of war.
We know that Teotihuacan had a hierarchical society. Large palaces surround the pyramids. The homes of the ruling class were decorated with colorful murals and intricate carvings. Thousands of smaller standardized apartment compounds spread around the city in a grid. The similarity of these buildings and their careful placement suggest that a powerful ruling class directed their construction. Most of these apartments held extended families, which produced the city's trade goods, like obsidian tools, in their homes.
A photo of a courtyard that is surrounded by pillars made of carved stone.
The Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, in Teotihuacan, built in the fifth or sixth century CE. It was rediscovered by archeologists in 1962 and restored by the Mexican government in 2011. By Jarek Tuszynski, CC BY 4.0.
Teotihuacan benefited from trade, but the city also grew its own food. Even without fancy river valleys full of fertile soil, the people of Teotihuacan engineered the land to increase agricultural output. They farmed maize, squash, tomatoes and other crops in the fields around the city. Their hierarchical society allowed them to manage urban planning, large-scale agriculture, production of trade goods, obsidian mining, and the construction of massive pyramids.
Some scholars even believe Teotihuacan was the center of a huge empire, conquering several of the Maya city-states. There is archeological evidence from the Maya city of Tikal that warriors from Teotihuacan participated in an internal conflict in Tikal. We can make good guesses about life in Teotihuacan, but with such limited evidence, our knowledge of the city is in many ways as confused as those Aztecs who gave it its name.
A photo of the long road leading to one of Teotihuacan’s largest structures. Along either side of the road are smaller structures.
A view of Teotihuacan showing the Avenue of the Dead leading to the Pyramid of the Moon. By Ricardo David Sanchez, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Mystery of collapse

We do know that Teotihuacan collapsed sometime around 550 CE, after a large fire devastated the city. We still don't know why the city burned, but fire alone usually doesn't mean a society's permanent collapse, so that mystery remains. Some scholars blame foreign invaders. Others argue the city became less important as trade declined. Some reject both theories, pointing to an internal enemy: a rebellion of the people against the ruling class. Others claim that Teotihuacan fell to the same enemy that brought down the Maya: drought.
The influence of Teotihuacan on Mesoamerican religion, art, and architecture continued long after the city fell into ruin. Later Aztec architecture and religion resembles what was found in Teotihuacan. Archeological excavations unearth new discoveries every year. Each discovery improves our understanding of this place and the people who lived there.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

Want to join the conversation?

  • boggle blue style avatar for user x.asper (bio)
    I have a pressing question in my mind; why did both the Egyptians and the Mesoamericans build pyramids? I don't see how they would be able to teach it to each other. Please help!
    (9 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hecretary Bird
      If they didn't teach it to each other, then there must be some universally appealing quality about pyramids themselves. Well, many pyramids were tall and closer to the skies, where many civilizations believed the gods resided. Additionally, there's a theory that people built pyramids to replicate mountains. Take a giant, towering mountain. If you can build that, you've just got heaps of street cred. If you wanted to legitimize yourself as a ruler, build a pyramid. You'd seem very high and powerful. Mountains also have some religious significance, as they're seen as the points on Earth closest to the skies, and heaven. People probably used pyramids to hold their dead because the dead were able to get close to heaven.
      Aside from spiritual significance, the pyramid shape was probably also useful. To start with, its a basic shape. You wouldn't need a team of designers to make a pyramid. Provided you had the manpower, you could go ahead and crank out dozens and not have to worry about replicating tiny details for the structure to be considered a pyramid. Also, pyramids are sturdier than other solids, and if ancient people wanted to build giant structures, you bet that they would want those structures to be around for forever. Hope this helps.
      (16 votes)