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In City of the Gods, War Was a Way of Life

New discoveries reveal that Mexico's Teotihuacan was not the peaceful, pastoral culture experts long thought it was.

November 12, 2002|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

A series of discoveries by a Japanese archeologist is shattering the long-held belief that the inhabitants of Mexico's mysterious Teotihuacan -- the City of the Gods -- were a peaceful people who managed to build a metropolis without having a warlike despot typically associated with vast empires.

Instead, excavations of several structures have shown that the people of Teotihuacan (pronounced TAY-oh-TEE-wa-CON), whose origin and ultimate fate are unknown, were as warlike as their Mayan contemporaries, and the Aztec and Inca who came after them.

Digging inside the massive edifices of the city, archeologist Saburo Sugiyama has unearthed the bodies of hundreds of bound captives, indicating that the city's rulers were well-versed in mayhem.

Last month inside the Pyramid of the Moon, Sugiyama found the first burial site for high-level officials ever discovered in the city. It was not the grave of a king, but certainly that of priests or other administrators. "Nobody has ever found anything like this" at Teotihuacan, he said, adding that the discoveries may change forever how the city is viewed.

Through the centuries, Teotihuacan has remained one of the most impenetrable mysteries of Mesoamerica.

At its peak, the city -- about 30 miles north of Mexico City -- covered at least 8 square miles, making it larger than Imperial Rome. Its estimated population of 150,000 exceeded that of Washington, D.C., during Abraham Lincoln's presidency, about 1,300 years later. It was the largest city in the New World during its ascendancy and one of the largest in the world.

Yet remarkably little is known about it.

Archeologists cannot read the Teotihuacanos' writings -- and are not even sure whether the inscriptions they have seen are, in fact, writings. They don't know who built the city, what they called themselves, how they spread their control over much of Mesoamerica, or why they abruptly disappeared in the 7th century, 800 years after the city's birth. The abandoned city and its monuments were given their current names by the Aztecs, who discovered the remnants when they moved into the region in the late 1400s and were convinced the city had a supernatural origin.

Sugiyama's recent discoveries have begun to unveil a tiny piece of the city's culture. In addition to the bodies of three officials, the tomb contained jade objects -- from as far away as the Motagua Valley of Guatemala -- carved in Mayan style, including a spectacular jade statuette of a person with relatively realistic features and big eyes. Such objects were typically used as a symbol of rulers or royal family members in Mayan society.

"The offerings strongly suggest a direct relation between the Teotihuacan ruling group and the Mayan royal families," Sugiyama said. "For the first time, we have data indicating a Mayan royal class connection at Teotihuacan, from the heart of one of the city's major monuments."

Scientists previously found evidence of Teotihuacan influence in Mayan and other cultures, but this discovery marks the first evidence that cultural influence moved in the opposite direction.

"The archeological evidence appears to point toward Teotihuacanos intervening in Mayan politics," said archeologist George Cowgill of Arizona State University, one of the foremost experts on the city.

"But many people still dispute that there was really any significant influence because they were two distinctly different cultures. Dr. Sugiyama's discovery makes it all more complicated by adding some big new pieces to the puzzle. It certainly makes it harder to see the Maya as not much influenced by Teotihuacan."

What has long puzzled archeologists are the widespread pictures of plants, animals, commoners and gods on monuments in the city. The images have led many researchers to speculate that it was a peaceful, pastoral culture, ruled not by mighty kings but by the collective will of the people -- a kind of Athens of Mesoamerica. The lack of inscriptions on the monuments, it has been suggested, reflects the absence of strong leaders driven by a need to glorify their reigns.

"It is a mystery," says archeologist Ruben Cabrera of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History. "Why didn't they depict rulers?"

Historian Esther Pasztory of Columbia University in New York suggests Teotihuacan was an egalitarian republic markedly different from contemporaneous civilizations. Her 1997 book, "Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living," argues that the people of Teotihuacan refrained from glorifying rulers because they wished to create the image of an integrated community.

Pasztory says researchers such as Sugiyama and Cowgill are trying to force the city into a single-ruler model that is more comfortable for them. "The model is something like ancient Egypt, but Teotihuacan is not Egypt. It is a very special place," she said.

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