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The cave under Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Moon helps explain the urban planning of this famous site. Source: Leonid Andronov /Adobe Stock

Natural Cave Helps Explain Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Moon


Archaeologists in Mexico City have answered a long outstanding question by having identified the purpose behind a natural cave beneath Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Moon.

Covering an area of 8895 acres, Teotihuacan is a massive pre-Columbian Mesoamerican city located 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Mexico City. It was built between the 1st and 7th centuries AD and today the site is an archaeological complex and popular tourist destination (pre-Corona). Features like the famous Avenue of the Dead connected the Temple of Quetzalcoatl , the Pyramid of the Moon, and the Pyramid of the Sun. The latter two offer visitors boundless panoramic views from their summits across what was once the largest urban center in the pre-Columbian Americas with a population of around 125,000 inhabitants.

Pyramid of the Sun and the Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacan. (Byelikova Oksana /Adobe Stock)

Pyramid of the Sun and the Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacan . ( Byelikova Oksana /Adobe Stock)

The June edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science includes a new research paper by Dr. Denisse Argote and colleagues who set out to study and characterize the subsoil beneath the 43 meter (141 ft.) high Pyramid of the Moon, which is the second-largest pyramid at Teotihuacan. This pyramid was built between 100 to 450 AD and it was primarily used for rituals and ceremonies, including human and animal sacrifices. Its public plaza was a political and socio-economic platform used for astronomical observations, but now light has been shone on its ancient subterranean secrets.

Hard Science Unlocks Secrets of Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Moon

Previous archaeological digs at Teotihuacan have revealed a series of man-made tunnels beneath the Pyramids of the Sun and of Quetzalcoatl, the latter of which is also called the Temple of the Feathered-Serpent. These had mostly been excavated for construction materials in upper structures, and according to a report in Heritage Daily , these tunnels were later “repurposed for astronomical observations and for venerating death in the underworld.”

The team of scientists applied ERT and ANT surveys, which are non-invasive geophysical techniques analyzing the electrical resistance of the ground beneath the structure. They identified a natural void beneath the Pyramid of the Moon and a partially filled cavern at a depth of 15 meters (49 ft.) Contrasting with the man-made tunnels beneath the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan, the researchers believe that the cave under the Pyramid of the Moon “formed naturally,” and had been a focal point for the early settlers, in-turn, influencing how the city was planned out .

Otherworldly Architectural Town Planning

With the placement of the pyramid at the end of the Avenue of the Dead, at the foot of Cerro Gordo, shaped to reflecting the contours of these mountains, the researchers theorize that it was “symbolic of a connection between the avenue and the watery underworld, whereas the mountain serves as an anchor to the earth.” They said the impact of this discovery opens discussion about the original planning of Teotihuacan s urban design.

The discovery under Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Moon help’s explain the city’s urban design. (elnavegante /Adobe Stock)

The discovery under Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Moon help’s explain the city’s urban design. ( elnavegante /Adobe Stock)

The first human establishment in the area dates back to around 600 BC when farmers began tilling the Teotihuacan Valley, which at that time had a total population of about 6,000 inhabitants. However, due to the development of successful agricultural technologies, from 100 BC to 750 AD, Teotihuacan morphed into huge urban and administrative center with cultural influences throughout Mesoamerica.

Mapping the Ancient Underworld

Period III, from 350 to 650 AD, the so-called classical period of Teotihuacan, had an estimated 125,000 inhabitants. At that time it was one of the largest cities of the ancient world - with over 2,000 buildings in an 18 square kilometer (6.95 sq. mile) area. This period saw the massive reconstruction of monuments; including the decorating of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent which dates back to an earlier period.

Period IV, between 650 and 750 AD, marks the end of Teotihuacan as a major power in Mesoamerica. The remains of the homes of the city’s elites, which line the Avenue of the Dead, bear burn marks which lead archaeologists to hypothesize that the city experienced waves of violent social unrest that brought about the city’s decline.

What the newly discovered cave system essentially does is answer the question “why” the first settlers stopped here and started building precisely where they did, and not say 10 miles east or five miles south. The cave beneath the pyramid suggests that people revered this natural access to the underworld so much that around it they built one of the most influential and biggest cities of the ancient world.

And the remains of that vast crumbling ancient city, which was aligned with the Sun, moon, and stars, it would seem, is a 1:1 map of the underworld - with the Avenue of the Dead acting as a main channel to the other side.

Top Image: The cave under Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Moon helps explain the urban planning of this famous site. Source: Leonid Andronov /Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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