November 6, 2012 • 7:34 am

I’m off to the U.S. tomorrow for about ten days before I hie to Old Blighty.

Two days ago I went to the ruins of Teotihuacan with a small group; it’s one of the most important set of ruins in Mesoamerica, and is just 50 km north of Mexico City. On the way we stopped at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a surreal experience, but more on that later.

As Wikipedia notes, the city lasted about 350 years, beginning about 100 B.C., and was huge (30 km square), holding over a hundred thousand residents.  It’s a World Heritage site, and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico. It appears to have begun its decline in the 6th century A.D., possibly because of climate change that induced droughts. (Archaeologists are beginning to realize that the mysterious decline of many Mesoamerican cultures may have been based on climate change, i.e., changing ecology.) This should be a lesson for today’s world: we face climate change, too, and it could be disasterous; the difference is that this time it’s our fault.

Excavation of the ruins really begin around 1910, and I’m told they’re about 85% restored. Still, they’re quite impressive and there are some original murals with original paint (a rarity in Mesoamerican ruins). Here are two of them. The first is a sacred bird and a plant; water is apparently coming from the bird’s mouth:

Other murals inside an enclosed room:

This is a partial mural of a jaguar along the “Avenue of the Dead” that runs through the ruins. It’s part of a complex of temples and platforms called “The Puma Complex”. Kitteh!

The walls are attractive, with the mortar inset with small pebbles:

The stunning part of the ruins comprises two temples, those of the Moon and Sun, and a long “Avenue of the Dead” connecting them. The avenue is flanked by structures and platforms whose functions are unknown. I climbed both temples; here’s the smaller Temple of the Moon taken from the Avenue.

Here’s the Temple of the Sun (now thought to be a temple to the water god); it’s the third biggest pyramid in the world, after the Great Pyramid of Choululu in Puebla, Mexico, and the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt:

I climbed to the top of this one, too (awesome view), and here’s the obligatory vanity picture:

Lest we forget what these civilizations were really like, let us remember that the builders of Teotihuacan, and their Aztec replacements, practiced the most barbarous forms of human sacrifice, for human blood was thought to propitiate the gods.  From Wikipedia:

Teotihuacanos practiced human sacrifice: human bodies and animal sacrifices have been found during excavations of the pyramids at Teotihuacan. Scholars believe that the people offered human sacrifices as part of a dedication when buildings were expanded or constructed. The victims were probably enemy warriors captured in battle and brought to the city for ritual sacrifice to ensure the city could prosper.[32] Some men were decapitated, some had their hearts removed, others were killed by being hit several times over the head, and some were buried alive.

And remember what the Aztec sacrifices were like: victims were laid over an altar and their chest ripped open with an obsidian knife, their heart snatched from the chest cavity and raised, still beating to the sky.  Surely some of these victims remained alive briefly without a heart (see this video). According to some accounts, thousands were sacrificed per year by the Aztecs; we’re not so sure about the toll at Teotihuacan.

Human sacrifice as shown in the Codex Magliabechiano:

32 thoughts on “Teotihuacan

    1. I don’t think any atheist can deny that religion hasn’t created great monuments. The fact that so many different religions have done so makes any visit one of scientific/anthropological interest rather than a spiritual one.

    2. Visiting archeologically important sites. You can’t deny that religion wasn’t a key driver of many civilizations. Even if there was no leopard god (nor any other).

      The observatory at Chichen Itza is quite amazing.

      So are the gargoyles at Notre Dame de Paris.

      1. I was gonna let the first one slide, but two in a row is too much.

        What can’t be denied is that religion has created great monuments, and was a key driver of civilization. Not hasn’t and wasn’t.

        Putting the grammar cop hat back in the closet now.

  1. Jerry, the small pebbles in the mortar indicate that the walls were rebuilt. The original, unrebuilt walls have no pebbles.

    My wife and I have a small place in the Mixcoac region of Mexico City and have visited many places throughout Mexico. It’s a wonderful country, and I’m glad you are enjoying it!

    AND we own two Xoloitzcuintles, too! Great dogs, and they get along with our cats. The cats boss ’em around, of course.

  2. Teotihuacanos were renowned for their forecasting skills: they could predict a man’s fate from looking at his heart.

      1. In the 19th century several French savants tried to study how long people retained some degree of consciousness after decapitation by the guillotine. While sample sizes were small, the degree of motivation of the participants questionable, and the experimental protocols “rough” (to say the least!), the results seem to be that people can retain some degree of consciousness for several tens of seconds after decapitation.
        Now, decapitation isn’t the same mode of death as from (I can’t think of the correct term – would “excardiation” do? “Excavation”? “Excarnation” is a burial practice IIRC. The vivisection industry probably has a word for the procedure.) But I think the actual cause of death of the brain would be hypoxia consequent on cessation of circulation of the blood. Shock would take too long. So … I could envisage that someone who is having their heart ripped out of their chest is likely to remain conscious enough to think about his prognosis. For a few seconds.
        The old joke amongst mountaineers and cavers is to “try to land on your head. It’s quicker that way.” It’s not a terribly funny joke, even by our “gallows humour” standards.
        I suppose that some elements of American society would like to see this question better addressed using people sentenced to death by the state. If you’re going to be killing people, you might as well get some use out of them. There’s several square metres of leather for a start. A couple of corneas. Bone for grafting. Plenty of other stuff.

  3. Its rather interesting that amerindian cultures seem to be fairly theocratic in general, and mesoamerica in particular shows the most extreme theocracy, whereas east asian religions are often non-theistic or minimally theistic.

    This despite the fact that the amerindians came from east asia fairly recently, suggesting maybe there is some founder effect post-dating the emigration.

    1. That Mesoamerican societies were exceptionally theocratic is a notion that was widely held up to 40-50 years ago, when we started learning more and when we started being able to read Maya inscriptions. It turns out they were just like most other pre-modern societies, with religion permeating many aspects of life and elites often depending on it to sanctify and legitimize their rule, but not exceptionally so when compared to, say, Medieval Europe or Asia.

      Human sacrifice was a common practice in many early prehistoric societies, including China and Europe, and while the Aztecs likely employed it on a larger scale than most preceding and contemporaneous Mesoamerican cultures, it wasn’t purely motivated by religion. The mass public execution of captives taken in war had clear propagandistic, militaristic and ideological goals. They liked to brag about it, and the Spanish equally tended to exaggerate the body count to hypocritically justify their own bloody conquest of those they portrayed as barbaric heathens, never mind the inquisition back home.

      On a side note, it made a certain sense to Mesoamerican Indians to sacrifice lowly humans to appease the gods. They were rather puzzled when they heard the Spanish preach the sacrifice of a god which should then be eaten by humans (host and wine).

      1. I’m aware of that but IMHO the point still stands. East asian religions are fairly non-goddy by the standards of the rest of the world, whereas mesoamerican cultures seem to have exhibited an unusually high propensity for large scale and routine religiously-inspired violence. (Note that I’m not trying to contrast opposites here).

        1. I think it is the characterization of the violence as “religiously-inspired” I disagree with. Yes, warfare and executions and all that were common in Mesoamerica, but also elsewhere. Warfare was driven as elsewhere by a desire for power and loot, generously sprinkled with a “gods are on our side” narrative, true, but so was warfare and violence pretty much everywhere. As for theocratic, a society like Japan with emperors descended from the sun goddess strikes me as being more so than Mesoamerican ones.

  4. To be fair, at around the same time Europeans practiced executions that were equally if not more barbaric, such as prisoners being hanged, drawn, and quartered, and heretics burned at the stake.

    1. In fact, if anybody happens to be visiting the Tuscan town of San Gimignano, I highly recommend the medieval torture museum there. There are no limits to human imagination when it comes to evil, it seems.

      1. If I ever get married again, I’m honeymooning there (and not JUST because of the torture museum). What a great place.

    2. I can’t speak for other European countries, but in Britain hanging drawing and quartering was typically reserved for crimes of treason. Poor run-of-the-mill criminals were typically strangled with rope and a convenient tree’s branch ; rich run-of-the-mill criminals got the option of a (normally) quicker axe or sword to decapitate.
      Torture is where you really need to exercise imagination and a degree of anatomical knowledge and subtlety, because you want “the accused” to be alive at the end of it.
      If you like your SF, try digging up a collection of Piers Anthony’s short stories by the name of “Anthonology” ; it’s got some truly delightful works of art in it.

  5. …the difference is that this time it’s our fault.

    Not just this time; the Anasazi and Easter Island civilizations (among others) collapsed largely due to human-caused deforestation and desertification.

    1. That seems contentious among archaeologists (and geographers, as Lynas is):

      “In my initial post on the myths of Easter Island I discussed the conclusions in archaeologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt’s new book ‘The Statues That Walked’, which demolished the idea – popularised by Jared Diamond in his book ‘Collapse’ – that Easter Island’s prehistoric society suffered some kind of ecologically-driven collapse which offers a parable for our modern-day environmental problems. Jared Diamond then sent over a robust response, which I published in full. Now Lipo and Hunt in turn respond to Diamond, which I am happy also to publish in full below.”

      “The “collapse” story for Easter Island is a convenient and popular parable used for shocking the public about the dangers of over-exuberance and environmental disregard. However, as we describe in our book, the island’s collapse came only with the germs, guns, and enslavement brought by the outside world.”

      1. Indeed. Also see “Questioning Collapse” edited by McAnany and Yoffee, a volume by archaeologists aimed directly at questioning Diamond’s book. It covers many of the same case studies. Bottom line is that the data shows a much more complex picture than what Diamond describes. For example, in the Maya area while some regions are largely abandoned, others nearby gain in population, and one can’t really talk about a generalized collapse. As for Teotihuacan, afaik environmental factors are not widely invoked as a major cause for the city’s abandonment.

  6. I cannot help but suspect that psychoactive substances played a large part in these Mesoamerican religions and their art; they remind me of a bad acid trip!

    1. Fancy some ergotism with your mescaline? Fly agaric?
      If there’s a primitive society that didn’t have some psycho-active stimulant, then I haven’t heard of it. (Though these things were rarely written down, so the historical record isn’t terribly clear.)
      Oh, there’s a nice word : Entheogen.

  7. The history of the Aztec empire and the theology on which it was based is much discussed by Mexicans, especially as it pertains to the question of the extent to which Latin American identity is influenced by the old and the imported Eurpean culture and religion.
    Carlos Fuentes commented on this very pointedly in his short story, Chac Mool, which can be found in Chac Mool by Carlos Fuentes, Transaled by Jonah Katz web.mit.edu/jikatz/www/ChacMool.pdf
    Readers of Spanish can find an interesting commentary on this subject in “Identidad y alternidad: del mito prehispánico al quento fantástico. “ Ana Maria Morale, Hipertexto 7, Invierno 2008, pp. 68 – 76. https://www.utpa.edu/dept/modlang/hipertexto/docs/Hiper7Morales.pdf
    “El sacrificio humano entre los mexicas.” Alfredo López Austin, Leonardo López Luján. http://www.mesoweb.com/about/articles/AM103.pdf, offers a good commentary on stereotyping of cultures.
    Anyone whyo wants to understand the history and governance of the Aztec empire should read “City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the role of Violence in Civilization” by Davíd Carrasco professor of history of religions, Princeton University. Carlos Fuentes comment on this book is that: “We know that power, whatever its origin – sacred, natural, ethnic, contractual, or democratic – is an expression of violence. Davíd Carrasco now demonstrates a shattering, unsentimental truth: civilizations themselves are born and maintained by violence.”

  8. Dr. C., a very small correction (not an easy thing, here): the correct word is TEOTIHUACAN, without the “t” before the “h”.

  9. Mesoamerican and Western European hierocrats seem to have been equally creative and prolific in torturing and murdering people.

    Differences in detail include: the Catholic priests handed prisoners over to the ‘secular arm’ when they’d had enough active fun (and just watched the rest), whereas the Aztecs sent the best bits down to the kitchens.

    I’m sure there are good ecological reasons for such differences.

  10. Nothing like a little blood sacrifice to keep the Earth spinning, the crops productive, the women fertile and, hopefully, spread some vile diseases among the populace.

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