Arizona State University archaeologist Michael E. Smith has conducted a comparative analysis of Teotihuacan with earlier and later Mesoamerican urban centers and proved, for the first time, the uniqueness of the ancient city.
Teotihuacan is a sacred pre-Columbian city that flourished between 1 CE and 600 CE and was once the largest in the Americas.
Located in the northeast of the Basin of Mexico, the ancient city covered 7.7 square miles (20 square km), supported a population of approximately 100,000 residents, and was in touch with other Mesoamerican civilizations.
It is unclear who the builders of Teotihuacan were, and what relation they had to the peoples which followed. It is also unclear why the city was abandoned. There are several theories which include foreign invasion, a civil war, an ecological catastrophe, or some combination of all three.
The Aztecs, who reached the height of their power about a thousand years later, held Teotihuacan in reverence.
The site of Teotihuacan is located just 25 miles (40 km) from the site of the Aztec capital. They claimed to be the descendants of the Teotihuacans. That may or may not be true, but the Teotihuacans had a huge influence on the later Aztec culture.
The name Teotihuacan comes from the Aztec language, and means ‘the birthplace of the gods’ and they believed it was the location of the creation of the Universe.
“The influence of this ancient culture on the Aztecs was not limited only to their cultural beliefs, but also it affected the urban design of their capital city,” Dr. Smith said.
Most ancient cities throughout Mesoamerica followed the same planning principles, and they included the same kinds of buildings.
Each city usually had a well-planned central area which included temples, a royal palace, a ballcourt, and a plaza that was surrounded by a much more chaotic (in terms of planning) residential area.
Teotihuacan most likely had no royal palace, no ballcourt, and no central areas. It was much larger than cities before it, and the residential areas were much better planned than its predecessors, and it had an innovation unique in world history — the apartment compound.
Buildings with one entrance that contained many households had been rare before the industrial revolution and those that did exist were for the poor. Teotihuacan’s were spacious and comfortable.
“Teotihuacan stood alone as the only city using a new and very different set of planning principles, and its apartment compounds represent a unique form of urban residence not just in Mesoamerica but in world urban history,” Dr. Smith said.
“All of these features were unique in Central America before and after, until the Aztecs drew their inspiration for their capital Tenochtitlan from Teotihuacan using many of the same features.”
Dr. Smith’s paper is published in the August 2017 issue of the journal Open Archeology.
Michael E. Smith et al. 2017. The Teotihuacan Anomaly: The Historical Trajectory of Urban Design in Ancient Central Mexico. Open Archaeology 3: 175-193; doi: 10.1515/opar-2017-0010
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