The Teotihuacan Pyramids are the remains of an ancient city that was suddenly deserted by a civilisation around 500 AD. Today it is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico, yet it still remains the least understood.
Re-discovered 700 years after its collapse by the Aztecs, the scale of the city impressed the Aztecs so much that they immortalised the ruins in their legends. The Aztecs had no idea who built the city but the monstrous pyramids were seen as something that no man could have built himself. From this point onwards the city became known as Teotihuacan, meaning ‘City of the Gods’.
At its height around 450 AD, Teotihuacan had an estimated population of 150,000 and stretched over an area of 20 km2 . During its time it would have been the sixth largest city in the world and covered an area larger than imperial Rome. Despite its size, the fact that no readable documents were left behind makes the mystery of Teotihuacan even more fascinating. But why was Teotihuacan abandoned?
When originally constructed, the pyramids of the city were plastered with lime that was then likely painted; a process that would have continually been repeated. Lime is made using burnt and powdered limestone mixed with water and in order to sustain the temperatures a huge amount of wood would have been required. It is estimated that 30,000 tons of wood would have been burnt each year to sustain the level of lime required for the continual plastering of the pyramids.
The deforestation of the surrounding area to support this demand would have led to soil erosion; something that in turn would have ruined agricultural productivity. It has therefore been suggested that Teotihuacan may have collapsed because it was unable to feed its inhabitants. The condition of human remains examined certainly seems to support this suggestion.
From early human remains it can be seen that the graves of average citizens often contained small treasures and trinkets which indicate a general wealth of the population. In the latter years, a polarisation in wealth can be seen amongst the human remains. Many of the graves became simpler and did not include previously seen treasures. This suggests a polarisation in wealth which is not seen in the earlier years of the city’s history. From analysing the later bone remains from the simpler graves it can be seen that there are considerable growth interruptions. These growth interruptions are not seen in the early human remains. The presence of these interruptions suggests something going drastically wrong in the final century of Teotihuacan. Interrupted growth rates indicate bouts of infection, nutritional problems and perhaps emotional trauma.
Does this suggest that Teotihuacan had gotten too big to sustain itself? Did the issues of mismanagement of the surrounding natural land accentuate this problem? It seems like one of the more probable theories as to why the city was abandoned but whether the real reason will ever be discovered still remains unknown.