Development Begins at Teotihuacán Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The construction of monumental religious and civic architecture, coupled with population growth at Teotihuacán, witnessed the Americas’ first great experiment in urbanization and state formation.

Summary of Event

Ancient Teotihuacán, situated in an offshoot of the Valley of Mexico, the Teotihuacán Valley, encompasses an area of about 190 square miles (about 500 square kilometers). Perhaps one-half of the valley is arable. Water from a dozen springs, the small watercourse of the San Juan River, and rainfall provided the necessary moisture for this agricultural society. As the urban center enlarged and nutritional demands increased, the river was harnessed for canal irrigation.

The site had many advantages. It was close to sources of obsidian (a razor-sharp volcanic glass) and to trade routes, it was surrounded by good agricultural land, and the location also held religious significance. A natural cave, 330 feet (100 meters) long and later modified, provided a focus for religious ritual and the mythological past. Any understanding of the social, political, and architectural achievement at Teotihuacán requires an appreciation of the religious power exercised by the site. In ancient Mesoamerican tradition, caves provided the entry to the underworld, a region rich in spirit life and fertility. According to the local mythology, both the Sun and the Moon were born at Teotihuacán. Water was artificially channeled into the sacred cave. The sacred nature of Teotihuacán manifested in water ceremonialism that united all these mythological associations.

The Pyramid of the Sun, positioned 20 feet (6 meters) over the cave, was constructed on the east side of the main concourse, the Street of the Dead, between 1 c.e. and 150 c.e. The great pyramid is about 700 feet (215 meters) on each side, rising to slightly more than 200 feet (60 meters). It is a rubble-filled structure containing more than 1.3 million cubic yards (1 million cubic meters) of material. The smaller Pyramid of the Moon is situated at the northern end of the Street of the Dead. This dominant thoroughfare traverses the city on a north-south axis, 15.5 degrees east of north. The Street of the Dead extends about 3 miles (5 kilometers), although only about one-half of its length has been excavated. Another major avenue bisects the Street of the Dead, dividing the city into quarters. In addition to the great pyramids, seventy-five temples, palace compounds, and administrative complexes line the Street of the Dead. Ultimately, by 500 c.e. the urban grid encompassed 8 square miles (20 square kilometers).

The Teotihuacán Mapping Project, headed by René Millon of the University of Rochester, one of the significant archaeological projects of the twentieth century, was undertaken during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Millon and his team discovered that the majority of the urban area comprised residential apartment compounds. Of the two thousand recognized compounds, about one hundred have been excavated. These structures would have housed twenty to one hundred individuals. The compounds, about 165 to 200 feet (50 to 60 meters) on each side, appear to have contained kin-based groups or groups who cooperated in similar productive pursuits. The majority of these compound structures were single-storied. Construction consisted of a rubble or brick wall faced with stones set in clay and coated with a lime plaster mixture. The residential compounds were constructed during the mid-third century c.e., which seems to provide a terminal date for major building projects.

The city appears to have contained distinctive ethnic barrios or neighborhoods. These kin-based groups carried out different forms of craft production within the many workshops found throughout the city. Workshops turned out manufactured goods for internal use and trade: obsidian tools, ceramic vessels and figurines, baskets, articles made of feathers or precious stones, and other goods. At the end of the first century c.e., perhaps one-quarter of the population was involved in craft production of some form. Presumably artists were in demand, given the sophisticated murals in palaces and temples and the stone sculpture that adorned temple complexes.

During the first century c.e., massive movements of population from the eastern and southern Valley of Mexico swelled the population of urban Teotihuacán. The city achieved maximum size about 500 c.e., with a population estimated between 125,000 to 200,000 individuals. The reason for this population concentration remains unknown.

The rise in occupational specialization channeled individuals away from the agrarian economy, thereby necessitating increased food production on the part of those who remained. Staple foods included the Mesoamerican triad of maize, beans, and squash, as well as amaranth and cactuses such as nopal. Hunting remained important in the Teotihuacán Valley: The only domesticated fauna were the turkey and the dog, both of which were consumed.

Archaeological work revealed evidence of trade between Teotihuacán and other regions of Mesoamerica. Small figurines exhibiting a particular facial and body style were mass-produced by the thousands and were part of the ceramic trade.

Elaborate carvings at Teotihuacán.


Art motifs and decorations from Teotihuacán are decidedly religious. Religious symbols are found throughout the city and adorn civic structures as well as temples, which again suggests the powerful religious forces extant in Teotihuacán society. Religious motifs and symbols from Teotihuacán have been identified at the sites of Tikal (in modern Guatemala) and Copán (in modern Honduras).

The sophisticated grid pattern of the city reflects the high levels of precision and mathematical skill possessed by the ancient Teotihuacanos. Numerous astronomers have suggested that a strong relationship exists between astronomy and the monumental religious and administrative architecture positioned along the Street of the Dead.

The coercive mechanisms required to bring together enormous amounts of human energy, a prerequisite for the construction of the great edifices, remain a mystery. Collective labor harnessed through a powerful religious system would appear to be a key in understanding the political apparatus that controlled Teotihuacán during the centuries of its growth. It may be erroneous, however, to assume that the power base was theocratic in the conventional meaning of the term.

Various groups exhibited differential access to nutritional resources that impact both health and life expectancy. Life expectancy for the poorer groups seldom exceeded age thirty. Great gaps separated social elites from the lower strata of society. Differential access to power, prestige, and wealth is evidenced in skeletal materials, in the practice of human sacrifice, and in residential compounds. Subordination is evidenced in art. The deliberate and planned bringing together of wide categories of people into an urban area was a first in the Americas.

After 1 c.e., Teotihuacán’s commercial power extended beyond the heartland of the Central Plateau. The city exercised significant influence in trade as far south as modern Guatemala, as well as the Gulf Coast and lowland regions. The expansion may have involved military activity to some degree, or it may have been entirely peaceful, tied to trade and religious symbolism. Certainly Teotihuacán lacked defensive fortifications, arguing against a militaristic society, although some building complexes within the city were walled. One of these was the 38-acre (15.5-hectare) Citadel, or Ciudadela, a massive religious center containing the renowned Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Overall, the area directly controlled by the Teotihuacán polity was about 10,000 square miles (about 25,000 square kilometers). The total population in this region has been estimated at between 300,000 and 500,000 people.

During the seventh century c.e., the commercial and political influence that the city had exercised for centuries gradually declined. The reasons for the burning and destruction of the city at the beginning of the eighth century remain imperfectly understood.


The visible archaeological complexes at Teotihuacán evidence a multitalented, future-oriented, self-confident people who created the first large-scale, socially stratified urban community in the Americas. Here, deliberate, long-range urban planning, hydraulic agriculture, complex mathematical skills, and architectural principles coalesced to evolve a series of innovative firsts for the New World. The precise shape of its interconnected political and religious structure remains a mystery. The scale and success of Teotihuacán become even more apparent when it is realized that the Teotihuacanos lacked draft animals, the wheel, and metal tools, which would have facilitated both urban construction and the productive economy. Teotihuacán is without precedent in New World archaeology.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berrin, Kathleen, and Ester Pasztory, eds. Teotihuacán: Art from the City of the Gods. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994. A lavishly illustrated collection of articles by principal investigators. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Linné, Sigvald. Archaeological Researches at Teotihuacán, Mexico. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003. Data and analysis from the first excavations at Teotihuacán in 1932. Particularly valuable for the ethnographic research concurrently carried out among the local population, providing remnants of cultural continuity with the city’s inhabitants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Millon, René. “Teotihuacán: City, State, Civilization.” In Handbook of Middle American Indians. Supp. 1, Archaeology, edited by Victoria Bricker and Jeremy Sabloff. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. A concise summation of what was known at the time of writing about the ancient city-state. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Millon, René. The Teotihuacán Map, Parts 1 and 2. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973. One of the great modern achievements of archaeological survey and excavation. Bibliography, indexes, maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pasztory, Esther. Teotihuacán: An Experiment in Living. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997. A comprehensive and compelling examination of the various art forms from Teotihuacán. Bibliography, index.

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