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Teotihuacan - Mexico

Residents upset with greedy elites burned Teotihuacan

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In 550 AD, a fire raged through Teotihuacan, one of the largest and most important sacred cities of ancient Mesoamerica. Now a new study suggests the city was burned down by an angry mob, raising many new questions. Were there heroes of the revolution in Teotihuacan? Was there an underground that operated over a long time, a resistance to a hated ruling elite? Or was it just a sudden social conflagration that destroyed the city in one day?

The ancient city of Teotihuacan, which is located about 30 miles (50 km) northeast of Mexico city, once supported an estimated population of 100,000 – 200,000 people, who raised giant monuments such as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.  However, much about Teotihuacan remains unknown, including the origin and language of the people who lived there, as they did not leave behind any written records.

“No traces of foreign invasion are visible at the site,” wrote Linda R. Manzanilla in her 2014 study of what happened at Teotihuacan, a city of great architecture that had 125,000 to 200,000 residents at its peak. “We interpret this event as a revolt against the ruling elite, perhaps a response to a late intervention on the part of the state to control the entrepreneurial movements of the intermediate elite.”

The major ritual and administrative buildings along the Street of the Dead were set on fire in A.D. 550, and the sculptures inside palatial structures, such as Xalla, were shattered.

A reproduction of a painting of the great goddess from the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan

A reproduction of a painting of the great goddess from the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan (Thomas Aleto/Wikimedia Commons)

Manzanilla doesn’t speculate about this, but one wonders if the sacrifice of people, the ritual taking of human life, had anything to do with rebellious residents setting off a destructive fire.

There was a big migration to the city after a volcanic explosion in the first century AD and a second migration after another volcano erupted around 320 AD, Manzanilla wrote.

“These two events, one at the outset and the other in the middle of the city’s history, fostered the reorganization of Teotihuacan society into a corporate multiethnic system. … The city became born as a multiethnic settlement where groups of different origins settled primarily on the fringes of the Metropolis,” she wrote.

She describes a metropolitan city with all four haplogroups (genetic groups) of Central America (Mesoamerica) present: A, B, C and D. Evidence that the immigrants sometimes settled in their own neighborhoods on the periphery is seen in funerary objects of foreigners, imported wares from their homelands, DNA testing of skeletal remains and isotopic testing of the remains of sacrificed people.

A bust of the plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl from Teotihucana

A bust of the plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl from Teotihucana (Photo by Jaime de la Fuente/Flickr)

Manzanilla specifically studied the neighborhood of Teopancazco, which had sectors of military personnel, religion, food preparation for workers, administration and medical centers and one devoted to craft production.

“Teopancazco also yielded 116 formal burials, of which 32 percent were decapitated individuals. Many of the burials were determined to be migrants from different regions. This group displays strong links to the Gulf Coast of Mexico through shared work as well as ritual and symbolic relationships,” she wrote.

She describes a corporate society that became so conflicted by class divisions that people burned the city down. There were an elite who controlled raw materials, and what she calls an intermediate elite who were skilled craftsmen who acquired status and economic power.

“The contrast between the corporate organization at the base and top of Teotihuacan society and the exclusionary organization of the neighborhoods headed by the highly competitive intermediate elite introduced tensions that set the stage for Teotihuacan’s collapse,” she wrote.


Teotihaucan presents somewhat of a mystery. Its origin and language are unknown, but the city’s inhabitants spread influence throughout Mesoamerica and traded with people from far away. Maybe two-thirds of the residents farmed the fields surrounding the city. Many of the rest were the crafters, soldiers, merchants and priest-rulers. The last had big religious ceremonies during  some of which they sacrificed people.

The Temple of the Sun, background, with the Temple of the Moon

The Temple of the Sun, background, with the Temple of the Moon (Marina Padilla/Wikimedia Commons)

The city had about 2,000 one-story apartment compounds, plazas, temples, a river turned into a canal and palaces of “nobles” and priests. The city has the Pyramid of the Moon, the Ciduadela plaza in which is the temple of Quetzalcoatl and the dominating Temple of the Sun.

Linda Manzanilla is with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published her study (note the link is a PDF).

Featured image: The ancient city of Teotihuacan, Mexico. Source: BigStockPhoto

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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