Teotihuacan – Echoes from the Past

View of the Temple of the Sun from the Temple of the Moon

View of the Temple of the Sun from the Temple of the Moon

Visitors at the base of the pyramid at Cuicuilco are walking on a 30 foot deep lava bed.

Visitors at the base of the pyramid at Cuicuilco are walking on a 30 foot deep lava bed.

The story of Teotihuacan in Central Mexico starts out around 800 BC at a place 40 miles away at a site known today as Cuicuilco (Place of Songs and Prayers in Nahuatl language). Cuicuilco was the ideal location on the southwest shore of Lake Texcoco in the heart of the Valley of Mexico. Natural springs provided a year round flow of fresh water from the nearby mountains. The soil was ideal for cultivation, and lake fish supplemented the diets of the people. For a thousand years settlement took place all around Cuicuilco as denizens of the region discovered its perfect climate and resources. Then suddenly, Mt. Xitle violently erupted just 2 miles to the south. Most of Cuicuilco is now entombed under a thirty foot layer of lava rock.

The Avenue of the Dead was most likely  named by Spaniards who thought the many temples were tombs.

The Avenue of the Dead was most likely named by Spaniards who thought the many temples were tombs.

Cuicuilco was hastily abandoned by the 20,000 or so residents in need of a new place to live. Since all the best settlement sites in the valley were now taken, the people of Cuicuilco were forced to keep migrating until they reached a forested plain far to the northeast, and there they founded Teotihuacan. Unwittingly, these early settlers found themselves at the crossroads of the major trade routes in the region. What started as a humble settlement grew to become the greatest trade city in the hemisphere, fueled by the discovery of obsidian.

The Temple of the Moon marks the north boundary of Teotihuacan.

The Temple of the Moon marks the north boundary of Teotihuacan.

The people of every region relied on obsidian for tools, arrowheads and spearheads. Teotihuacan grew and prospered thanks to the obsidian trade, and military force was utilized as necessary to squelch any serious competition in order to maintain their monopoly. At its peak around 600 AD, Teotihuacan had about 250,000 residents, which would have made it the sixth largest city on Earth at the time, and its history of prosperity spanning over 800 years is still a subject of study.

Archeologists discovered tunnels 30 feet deep leading to a room beneath the temple's center.

Archeologists discovered tunnels 30 feet deep leading to a room beneath the temple’s center.

Archeologists have noted the main road in the city, oddly referred to as the Avenue of the Dead, is laid out on a line 15° 30’ east of north. Given what we know of their precise systems of measurement, this oddity is not a mistake. The largest temple in the city, The Temple of the Sun, holds the key. The west side of this pyramid faces the exact spot on the horizon where the sun sets on the two dates that the sun is directly overhead at midday, May 16 as the sun passes northward toward the Tropic of Cancer, and July 28 when the sun is returning toward the equator. The line from this temple to the setting sun is exactly perpendicular to a line 15° 30’ east of north.

The west side of the Temple of the Sun teems with people before sunset.

The west side of the Temple of the Sun, third tallest pyramid in the world, teems with people before sunset.

We experienced an amazing phenomenon on our Teotihuacan tour. We stood before a pyramid about 20 feet back from where the steps ascend on the side, and we clapped our hands. The echo of the sound came back as a “chirp.” We learned this echo has the identical sonic signature of a quetzal when it chirps. Knowing that the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica worshiped the quetzal as a symbol of nobility, it was like hearing the echo of history with our own ears.

View more images on this short video:

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Xochicalco – Ancient City of Flowers

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent sits on the highest terrace at Xochicalco where sacred rituals were conducted.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent, featuring deeply cut relief carvings, sits on the highest terrace at Xochicalco where sacred rituals were conducted.

Xochicalco has plazas on different levels connected by ramps and stairs.

Xochicalco has plazas on different levels connected by ramps and stairs.

Xochicalco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site south of Cuernavaca, Mexico, had a relatively brief history from 650 AD – 900 AD. The Mayan civilization of that time was in decline experiencing strife and rebellion. Xochicalco was built as a walled, fortified city on the highest mountain overlooking the rich farmland of Mexico’s central valley, suggesting a need to defend itself against warring factions. Cisterns the size of modern swimming pools were built to gather and store rainwater since the city had no permanent water supply. Scholars estimate the population of the city at its peak may have reached 15,000 inhabitants.

This living area on the highest plaza is most likely where the priests lived.

This living area on the highest plaza is most likely where the priests lived.

Xochicalco grew rapidly as a cultural, commercial, and religious center. Although not a Mayan city, Xochicalco modeled itself on Mayan ideas of organization and construction. The city was terraced with plazas on different levels that were connected by a complex network of pathways and stairs. The uppermost level was the site of the temple where priests carried out the most important rituals of the day.

The indigenous Nahuatl word Xochicalco translated literally means “in the place of the home of flowers,” most likely a reference to the prolific blooming of wildflowers in November following the region’s rainy season. While research might reveal the actual name of the city as it was known at the time, I have not discovered it.

The largest of three game fields at Xochicalco had lots of space for spectators.

The largest of three game fields at Xochicalco had lots of space for large numbers of spectators overlooking the arena.

Games played on the stylized playfields of the day had some similarities to the modern-day games of soccer, basketball, and football. The fields were shaped like a capital letter “I” with carved stone ‘goals’ or hoops on each side. Spanish observers of the games described seven-man teams who wore protective padding on their heads, shoulders, torsos and legs. Players moved a solid ball weighing an estimated eight pounds and 8” in diameter made of vulcanized rubber.* Players were not permitted to use their hands or feet. While scorekeeping remains a mystery, one observer witnessed a player putting the ball through a hoop. He expected the crowd to jump up and cheer. In actuality, the spectators jumped up and ran away while being chased by players on the scoring team. It was later explained the scoring team was allowed to take the possessions of the spectators. Thus, the winners were trying to chase down the wealthiest spectators in an effort to claim their clothing and jewelry as a victory prize.

All carved figures depicting a sloped forehead are of Mayans. Shaping of the skulls of infants was a common Mayan practice.

All carved figures depicting a sloped forehead are of Mayans. Shaping of the skulls of infants was a common Mayan practice.

Almost all of the structures now visible at Xochicalco have been restored by modern archeologists prior to the 1990’s. The new school of archeological thought has become one of consolidation as opposed to restoration. That is, only enough work is performed at a site to preserve it as it was found, thus keeping everything ‘genuine.’ These academics refer to old school archeologists as ‘pyramidiots,’ a derogatory reference to rebuilding sites according to an academician’s ‘best guess’ as to what structures actually looked like. In defense of the old school, I will point out that the site at Xochicalco would appear today mostly as piles of rubble had there been no restoration projects. You will need to decide for yourself which approach is the most appropriate.

*Note – Ancient Mesoamericans learned to vulcanize rubber over 3,000 years before Charles Goodyear obtained the U.S. patent for the process in 1847.

See more of Xochicalco on this short video:

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