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
Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play about the Prince of Denmark says:
“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.” (Act 3, Scene 2)
Language is a powerful expression of culture.
Writing systems, words, and phonetics convey meanings that reveal beliefs and cosmologic views of the people using them. The ancient Mayan language, with roots preceding Old English, is present as both oral and visible literature written on ceramic vessels, painted on murals and wall friezes, carved on stone monuments and wooden
lintels, and in the few books (codices) that survived burning by Spaniards. Over 2000 years of Mayan literature tells stories with two overlapping strands—one following events on the surface of the earth, the other following events in the sky or underworld. This reveals the inter-dimensional cosmology of the ancient Mayas, where worlds of people, Gods, ancestors, and demons intersect regularly.
Shakespeare’s language is far from modern English, but few would suggest paraphrasing his great works. The cadence, style, and choice of words create a period feel and bring readers into those places and times. Mayan language can also invoke their culture and environment, but is difficult to express in English. There could hardly be a more “foreign” type of writing and language to English-speakers.
Classic Mayan hieroglyphic writing.
In use for 2000 years beginning around 300 BC, Classic Mayan was a single “prestige” language, highly formalized throughout the Maya regions. Phonetic decipherments in the
late 1980s and 1990s showed it related to the Cholan subgroup of Mayan languages, with Ch’orti and its ancestral language Cholti the closest relatives. Maya hieroglyphs represent word signs (logograms) or syllables (syllabograms), combined into glyph blocks. Every part of the glyph block contains meaning, some markings signaling qualities of speech such as
glottalization, aspiration, or vowel length. Single blocks often contain multiple words, with considerable artistic license in visual design and format. There were multiple ways to express words, and repeated images for emphasis. Over 100 years were necessary for Western epigraphers to decipher Mayan writing, due to its complexity. About 80% of hieroglyphs can now be read, giving us direct entry into ancient Mayan literature.
The basic word order for Mayan clauses was verb-object-subject (VSO). English follows the subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. Many Mesoamerican languages follow VSO, along with Celtic, Afroasiatic, Austronesian, and Salishan languages.
Examples of these differences:
SVO “She loves him.” “Tutuum Yohl K’inich plants the stone.”
VSO “Loves she him.” “Plants the stone Tutuum Yohl K’inich.”
Language was infused with sacred itz, life essence, to the Mayas.
They valued poetic and courtly uses of language, believing the Gods were both honored and pleased when words were well spoken. This was especially important in the high culture of Maya courts, a central institution in their hierarchical society. Mayan poems typically used the device of couplets, the repeating of key words and phrases in consecutive lines, also called parallel verse. While many consider it heresy to paraphrase a finished English poem, the Mayas used paraphrase to construct poems in the first place. For them, this was a process taking place inside a language, viewing poetry itself as translation. It gives a lilting quality to Mayan language.
“Kajuljutik, kachupchutik, pa ri q’ekum, pa ri aq’ab’.”
“It shines, it shimmers, in the blackness, in the night.” – 2000 Years of Mayan Literature
“So then they began their songs, their dances.
So then all of Xibalba arrived,
the spectators crowded the floor.
And they danced everything:
they danced the Weasel,
they danced the Poorwill,
they danced the Armadillo.” – Popol Vuh
Speak the Speech in Mayan
Writing historical fiction about Classic Period Mayas, I grappled with making the language reflect their unique, lyrical speech patterns. I wanted readers to immediately experience a different, courtly culture so I avoided use of contractions and created some flowery speeches for characters. From time to time, I constructed sentences following the VSO order but this didn’t always sit well with readers. An example from the first book in the series about Yohl Ik’nal drew criticism: “Just because characters talk like Yoda doesn’t make them wise.”
“Concerned I am about your daughter,” the priestess said.
Actually, the ancient Mayas spoke this way centuries before Yoda came onto the Star Wars scene. To make Yoda wise and exotic, Lucas borrowed Mesoamerican sentence structure. But I relented and switched to SVO—“I am concerned about your daughter”—because it was the first sentence of dialogue in the book. Whenever it worked, however, I continued to have characters “Speak the speech” in their native pattern. The VSO speech pattern has persisted into contemporary times, at least among traditional Mayas. Hunbatz Men, Itzá Maya elder and daykeeper was my main teacher while I lived in Yucatan, Mexico. When he wanted to make a point and get our attention, he often used this passive voice phrase:
VSO: “Now comes something important.”
SVO: “Something important now comes.”
Ancient Mayas often used passive tense, which adds to the poetic quality of their narratives. The Popol Vuh, a 16th century book based on ancient sources, was written in alphabetic script using phonetic interpretation of K’iche’ Mayan. The beginning relates how the Gods first created the world:
“It takes a long performance and account
to complete the lighting of all the sky-earth
the fourfold siding, fourfold cornering,
measuring, fourfold staking,
halving the cord, stretching the cord,
in the sky, on the earth,
the four sides, the four corners, as it is said
by the Maker, Modeler,
of life, of humankind.” – Popol Vuh, Sam Colop version
Read culturally authentic Mayan stories in my novels about ancient Mayan queens.
Dennis Tedlock. 2000 Years of Mayan Literature. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2010.
Sam Colop & Luis Enrique. Popol Wuj: Versión poética k’iche’. Cholsamaj, Guatemala City, 1999.
John Curl. Inca, Maya & Aztec Poetry: Translations and Biographies of the Poets. Bilingual Press, Arizona State University.
Wikipedia. “Classic Maya language and Verb-subject-object.” Accessed 3/31/18.
Danny Law & David Stuart. “Classic Mayan: An overview of language in ancient hieroglyphic script.” In Judith Aissen, Nora England & Roberto Zavola Maldonado (eds). The Mayan Languages. Routledge Language Family Series. New York, 2017.