I raced up the stone steps, higher and higher. Perhaps I should have slowed down and imbued my mind with reverence, but I couldn’t help it. I had waited all my life to climb the Pyramid of the Sun. I finally arrived at the summit, over 200 feet high, and marveled at the view of the Valley of Mexico all around me. Distant mountains ringed the horizon, and before me sprawled the ruins of the largest ancient metropolis in the Americas. The Aztecs had found the city empty and abandoned, calling it Teotihuacan—“the place where men became gods,” pronouncing it tay-oh-tee-WAH-kan. We simply don’t know what the city was really called at the height of its splendor.
I removed my shoes and stood barefoot on the pyramid, grounding myself in its telluric energy. The wind swirled around me, and I drank in the view. To my right was Cerro Gordo, the “fat mountain,” and below it stood the Pyramid of the Moon. Stretching out before me was the Avenue of the Dead, 200 feet across and over two miles long. Far in the distance to my left were the Ciudadela (‘Citadel”) and the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. The landscape was peppered with thousands of apartment buildings and structures, walls, canals, trees, roads, and mounds—all evidence of a once bustling and very advanced city.
Sergio, our tour guide, finally appeared at the top. “I’ve never seen anyone get up here that fast! To think, only a handful of people would have been allowed up here in the past.” He swept his hand over the panorama. “Imagine 100,000 people watching, all looking up at the temple. This was the exclusive domain of the priests, the warriors, and leaders. This is where the sacrifices would have occurred. It’s also where the observations of the sun, Venus, and the constellations would have been made. The calendar was perhaps the most important invention of these people.”
I imagined the now-gone temple walls surrounding me, covered in lustrous red hematite paint and multicolored murals of mythical animals and grizzly sacrifice. They showed a forgotten ritual that was taking place deep at night. In it, fires burned atop large torches, their light reflecting off brilliant pyrite mirrors. A priest stepped forward, adorned with a headdress of towering green quetzal bird feathers, shell necklaces, and charcoal smudges over his body. Wafts of copal incense streamed up behind him, and he chanted loudly, with his arms raised. Drums sounded far off. Nine men knelt bound before him. Some looked terrified of the curved obsidian blade glinting in his hand, others appeared proud. Just as I imagined the knife drawing near, I felt a tug at my shirt. It was Sergio: “Come on, there’s so much more to see.”
Treasures Under the Feathered Serpent Pyramid
Ancient Mesoamericans imagined their world in three levels: the heavens, earth, and underworld—all tied together at the central axis mundi or “world axis.” Teotihuacan was perhaps the most important axis mundi in Mexico, where the people honored the heavens with the city layout, the earth with the pyramids, and the underworld with ritual tunnels and caves directly under the pyramids. In 1971, a long winding tunnel was discovered at the foot of the Pyramid of the Sun. It ran towards the center of the pyramid and ended in a four-room chamber, which was unfortunately found looted.
Dr. Doris Heyden believes this tunnel was used for rituals and magic, as these were often performed deep underground. She says caves were seen as the womb of the earth, the sun and the moon emerged from caves, as did the tribes of Mexico. Tlaloc, the storm god, lived in caves, his name meaning “path under the earth.” Oracles spoke from caves, and we know that tunnels were seen as entrances to the underworld, full of water, seeds, and nourishment. The question was then, if there was a tunnel under the Pyramid of the Sun, was there a tunnel under any other pyramids?
Sure enough, in 2003, heavy rains washed away a depression before the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, revealing a chasm. Archaeologist Sergio Gómez was lowered down, and he eventually found a tunnel forty-five-feet down, leading directly towards the pyramid. Over the next fifteen years, he and his team meticulously excavated the tunnel, unearthing more than 75,000 artifacts and making several astounding discoveries. In 2013, he found a layer of clay globes covered in pyrite, or “fool’s gold” (now oxidized to the yellow mineral jarosite).
He also found obsidian blades, the bones of jaguars and wolves and snakes, greenstone statues, and gigantic carved conch shells from the Caribbean, Pacific, and Gulf coasts. He did not ultimately find a tomb at the end of the 340-foot tunnel—his original mission—but he did find abundant evidence for advanced civilization, complex ceremony, long-distance trade and its accompanying political power. He figured the tunnel was a recreation of the underworld, complete with “fool’s gold” disseminated into the walls of the cave, to imitate the night sky when lit by torch.
He made his most astounding discovery in 2015: a small model landscape filled with liquid mercury, symbolizing sacred lakes and rivers. This was eerily similar to the sacred (and poisonous) mercury-landscape discovered in the tomb of the Shang Emperor Qin Shi Huang from 210 BCE. Found before at three other Mexican sites, this reflective and rare liquid could have been used for divination rituals. Mirrors were highly prized in Mesoamerica, as evidenced by the abundant pyrite mirrors found at the city. However, the liquid metal was within a miniature landscape model, similar to the “Sayhuite Stone” from Peru. Atlantis Rising contributor Arlan Andrews has argued that this ancient Peruvian stone was used to analyze real hydraulic patterns in the landscape, using the heavier properties of mercury to represent real water on a smaller scale. Could the inhabitants of Teotihuacan have been familiar with these advanced hydraulic modeling tricks?
The sheets of reflective mica found at the city could likewise have played a role in magic, used to divine future events and communicate with past ancestors. However, Andrews has suggested these mineral sheets, typically found installed on the ground as a “pavement,” could have been used to collect and concentrate static electricity. Mica is a good collector of static electricity via the triboelectric effect, and this electricity, when finally discharged, would have created a magical lightning effect, exactly like that associated with Tlaloc.
Perhaps the most intriguing recent discovery made at the city is yet a third tunnel under a pyramid, this time the Pyramid of the Moon. Electrical resistivity tomography scanning done during 2017 revealed the presence of a tunnel running underneath the pyramid, roughly 30 feet down, similar to that excavated by Gómez under the Ciudadela. Excavations are pending approval, and many believe more amazing treasures will be discovered in this new, third pyramid tunnel sometime past 2020.
Murky Origins to Sophisticated City
“It is told that when all was in darkness, when yet no sun had shone and no dawn had broken, the gods gathered together and took counsel among themselves at Teotihuacan.” This was according to an Aztec myth translated after the Spanish Conquest by the Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagún. The actual origins of the people of Teotihuacan defy easy explanations. Many archaeologists see their culture as a direct progression from the earlier Olmec culture, which had become established to the east a millennia earlier. The ideas of the four-sided pyramid first appeared at the Olmec site of La Venta, as does the feathered serpent deity, later called Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs. Other signs point to Olmec influence as well, such as carved jade masks (found in 2011 in the Pyramid of the Sun), glyph writing (as yet undeciphered), and sacred geography/cosmology, such as reverence for caves.
Still others see the origins of Teotihuacan farther off, particularly China. Some researchers, such as Dr. Gordon Ekholm (former curator of the Museum of Natural History in New York), point to the jade masks of the Olmecs as being strikingly similar to Shang Chinese masks of the similar time period. Dr. James Heaton also makes a strong case that the Lóng dragon of China and the feathered serpent had a common origin, both appearing in the second millennium BCE. These commonalities extend beyond the uncanny physical similarities to their association with life-giving water, rains, agriculture, the emperor/leader, and overall good fortune.
Teotihuacan is remarkable for its organized, grid-like layout. With over two thousand multifamily apartment complexes so far discovered, we know a large portion of the 125,000-strong population lived in state-constructed and standardized, permanent dwellings. It was also a multi-ethnic city, as Dr. Linda Manzanilla notes: “Each neighborhood was a group with an identity.” This reflected a level of advanced city planning and integration unparalleled in Mesoamerica. The city also had the lowest level of wealth concentration in the ancient world, meaning a sizeable proportion of its lower class actually lived in spacious estates. In fact, Teotihuacan was the most egalitarian of all ancient cities, another radically advanced concept, considering the huge wealth inequality in our world today.
Sergio made a point of noting the unassuming yet abundant water tunnels running everywhere beneath the floors of the buildings. “Water management was another advanced feature here, both within the city and out in the fields.” The course of the Río San Juan River, the city’s main water source, was altered and straightened along four kilometers to match the city’s grid layout. Dr. Deborah Nichols and her students have found evidence of buried canals via ground-penetrating radar and spectral aerial photography. The city even had sewage disposal. “Please, sit down,” Sergio said slyly as we toured an apartment complex. I looked down, seeing a crude yet unmistakable stone toilet—primitive plumbing! We all laughed as I mimed dropping my pants and sitting down.
Water was so important at Teotihuacan that many believe it was its central theme. Both the Feathered Serpent and Tlaloc were water deities. With an annual rainfall of only 550mm, the minimum needed for successful maize cultivation, the semi-arid Mexico Basin was perpetually on the edge of running out of natural water. Dr. Verónica Ortega and her students have found canals and “pool”-like cavities beneath the square before the Pyramid of the Moon, which she believes was conceived of as a “water mountain,” or altepetl in Mesoamerican thought. “Water was the most important element at the city, which might have been an aquatic sanctuary consecrated to its worship.” Dr. Julie Gazzola has even found evidence of ritual flooding at the Ciudadela enclosure, imagining it as an “enormous ritual stage where the creation myth could be periodically reactivated.”
Watching the Heavens
Just as the underworld and earth were honored at Teotihuacan, so were the heavens. Many suggest the city’s three main ceremonial centers were oriented to reflect the belt stars of Orion, since these stars featured in Mesoamerican cosmology as a turtle shell. Alternatively, Hugh Harleston Jr. imagined the city as a precise scale model of our solar system. However, the most perplexing puzzle remains the city’s azimuth of 15.5°.
Dr. Ivan Šprajc has suggested this would have allowed for the marking of key agricultural dates via solar observations. He notes that the 15.5° angle would have allowed, in the first century CE, for the viewing of sunrises/sunsets on four dates critical to the maize cycle: field prep work (February 11), rainy season and planting (April 30), ripening of the first corn cobs (August 13—the beginning of creation in the Mesoamerica calendar) and the end of the rainy season and the beginning of harvest (October 29). In addition to this, it also created the illusion of the sun rising directly over the mountain Cerro Colorado on March 23 and September 20, the spring and autumnal equinoxes.
Yet others see a magnetic solution to this mystery. While no compasses have been found at Teotihuacan, one magnetic “lodestone” was found at the Olmec site San Lorenzo, dating to 1200 BCE. Dr. John Carlson believes it was used for magnetic orientation. Interestingly, the paleo-magnetic declination for Teotihuacan during the time period 400 BCE was 15.5°, and during the initial Olmec phase it was ~8°, matching earlier Olmec-site alignments. Therefore, Drs. Klokocník and Kostelecký propose the first road of Teotihuacan was laid out in 400 BCE using a floating lodestone, and this direction remained unchanged: a “sacred” alignment of 15.5° (centuries before China developed their own compasses, and another Chinese connection).
As we finished the day, Sergio took us for dinner at his favorite haunt near the pyramids. We sat around the huge table and clinked our beer bottles together. Moments later, waiters set mounds of fresh, piping hot corn tortillas before us. Finally, the pièce de résistance appeared—the molcajete. This was a steaming hot, basalt-rock bowl filled to the brim with beef and chicken strips, peppers, and plump green onions, all covered in browned and bubbling Oaxaca cheese. Our eyes lit up, and we quickly tucked in to the feast, covering everything in spicy salsa roja, lime, and cilantro. With no forks or knives, we could have been eating in the ancient city two thousand years before, sharing hand-milled corn tortillas with a local farmer—nothing before us would have been out of place, except of course the beer bottles!
As we ate, we discussed how such an advanced society could fall so fatefully. Archaeo-magnetic dating from mural paintings suggests the city center and temples were set on fire 550 CE, and the city’s population declined after that. The preeminent archaeologist of the city, Dr. George Cowgill, summarized it best: “It is too simplistic to point to any single cause of collapse,” although his suggestions include: “tensions arising from growing wealth differences, bureaucratic proliferation, droughts, human-induced environmental damage, growing competition, and large scale invasions.” Before he passed away in 2018, he left us with a chilling warning: “the outer parts of ancient Teotihuacan are rapidly disappearing as a result of population growth and mechanized agriculture… Unless more funding can be found very soon, almost nothing will be left of the archaeological record in the Basin of Mexico, including much of Teotihuacan.”
We finished dinner and made our way back to the car. Before climbing in, I watched the sun creep lower, a warm breeze swirling past me. An image of a lone Teotihuacan priest shimmered into view, wreathed by the scarlet solar circle. He was resplendent in green-feathers, jade earspools, and a multicolored robe. His deep eyes peered out at me through painted owl-bone goggles. He held a bag of incense and a wooden painted serpent wand. He spoke a now-gone language, but I could somehow understand him: “This is where the Fifth Sun was created. How long do you have left before the end of the Fifth Sun?” He morphed into a skeleton, and then vanished into the growing dusk, leaving me to ponder his words all the way back to Mexico City.
Jonathon Perrin is the author of Moses Restored: The Oldest Religious Secret Never Told, available in print or as an e-book from Amazon.com.
CAPTION: Tunnel beneath the Quetzalcoatl temple in the city of Teotihuacan. (Cutaway image: courtesy of the National Institute of Anthropology