Two things set off the Early from the Late Classic: first, the strong Izapan element still discernible in Early Classic Maya culture, and secondly, the appearance in the middle part of the Early Classic of powerful waves of influence, and almost certainly invaders themselves, from the site of Teotihuacan in central Mexico. This city was founded in the first century BC in a small but fertile valley opening onto the northeast side of the Valley of Mexico. On the eve of its destruction at the hands of unknown peoples, at the end of the sixth or beginning of the seventh century AD, it covered an area of over 5 sq. miles (13 sq. km) and may have had, according to George Cowgill, a preeminent expert on the site, a population of some 85,000 people living in over 2,300 apartment compounds. To fill it, Teotihuacan’s ruthless early rulers virtually depopulated smaller towns and villages in the Valley of Mexico. It was, in short, the greatest city ever seen in the Pre-Columbian New World.

Teotihuacan is noted for the regularity of its two crisscrossing great avenues, for its Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, and for the delicacy and sophistication of the paintings which graced the walls of its luxurious palaces. In these murals and elsewhere, the art of the great city is permeated with war symbolism, and there can be little doubt that war and conquest were major concerns to its rulers. Teotihuacan fighting men were armed with atlatl-propelled darts and rectangular shields, and bore round, decorated, pyrite mosaic mirrors on their backs; with their eyes sometimes partly hidden by white shell “goggles,” and their feather headdresses, they must have been terrifying figures to their opponents.

At the very heart of the city, facing the main north–south avenue, is the massive Ciudadela (“citadel”), in all likelihood the compound housing the royal palace. Within the Ciudadela itself is the stepped, stone-faced temple-pyramid known as the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (TFS), one of the single most important buildings of ancient Mesoamerica, and apparently well known to the distant Maya right through the end of the Classic. When the TFS was dedicated c. AD 200, at least 200 individuals were sacrificed in its honor. Study of their bone chemistry reveals that not a few are certain to have been foreigners. All were attired as Teotihuacan warriors, with obsidian-tipped darts and back mirrors, and some had collars strung with imitation human jawbones.

On the facade and balustrades of the TFS are multiple figures of the Feathered Serpent, an early form of the later Aztec god Quetzalcoatl (patron god of the priesthood) and a figure that may, according to Karl Taube, have originated among the Maya. Alternating with these figures is the head of another supernatural ophidian, with retroussé snout covered with rectangular platelets representing jade, and cut shell goggles placed in front of a stylized headdress in the shape of the Mexican sign for “year.” Taube has conclusively demonstrated this to be a War Serpent, a potent symbol wherever Teotihuacan influence was felt in Mesoamerica – and, in fact, long after the fall of Teotihuacan. Such martial symbolism extended even to the Teotihuacan prototype of the rain deity Tlaloc who, fitted with his characteristic “goggles” and year-sign, also functioned as a war god.

This mighty city held dominion over large parts of Mexico in the Early Classic as the center of a military and commercial empire that may have been greater than that of the much later Aztec. Drawing upon historical data on the Aztecs, ethnohistorian Ross Hassig has suggested that Mesoamerican “empires” such as Teotihuacan’s were probably not organized along Roman lines, which totally replaced local administrations by the imperial power; rather, they were “hegemonic,” in the sense that conquered bureaucracies were largely in place, but controlled and taxed through the constant threat of the overwhelming military force which could have been unleashed against them at any time. Thus, we can expect a good deal of local cultural continuity even in those regions taken over by the great city; but in the case of the lowland Maya, we shall also see outright interference in dynastic matters, with profound implications for the course of Maya history.

That the Teotihuacan empire prefigured that of the Aztecs is vividly attested at the site of Los Horcones, Chiapas, Mexico, studied by Claudia García-Des Lauriers of California State Polytechnic, Pomona. Situated near a spectacular hill, the city lies on the very edge of the great chocolate-producing area known to the Aztecs as the Xoconochco. The southern part of Los Horcones is a dead ringer for the complex composed of the Pyramid of the Moon and the Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacan, and artifacts and monuments point to a direct Teotihuacan presence in the region. It is hard to believe that the Aztecs were not the imitators here, and that Teotihuacan was the first to interest itself in the cacao plantations and trade routes of the region. The contact did not stop there, but extended to what may be a Teotihuacan colony at Montana, Guatemala. This settlement, surrounded by others like it within a 3 mile (5 km) radius, is endowed with magnificent incense burners, portrait figurines, and an enigmatic square object known to specialists as candeleros or “candle holders,” though their function is not known. And Montana was not alone. In 1969 tractors plowing the fields in the Tiquisate region of the Pacific coastal plain of Guatemala, an area located southwest of Lake Atitlan that is covered with ancient (and untested) mounds, unearthed rich tombs and caches containing a total of over 1,000 ceramic objects. These have been examined by Nicholas Hellmuth of the Foundation for Latin American Archaeological Research; the collection consists of elaborate two-piece censers (according to Karl Taube symbolizing the souls of dead warriors), slab-legged tripod cylinders, hollow mold-made figures, and other objects, all in Teotihuacan style. Numerous finds of fired clay molds suggest that these were mass-produced from Teotihuacan prototypes by military-merchant groups intruding from central Mexico during the last half of the Early Classic.

Contacts must have been intense and conducted at the highest levels. Taube has detected Maya-style ceramics at Teotihuacan, some made locally, perhaps in an ethnic enclave at the city. Legible Maya glyphs from murals in the Tetitla apartment compound at Teotihuacan attest to royal names and rituals of god-impersonation. Very likely, these refer not to mere craftsmen brought from the Maya region, but to dynastic elites. Yet the movement of these people must have been complex. Under the immense Pyramid of the Moon, Saburo Sugiyama and colleagues discovered a burial with three bodies, dating to AD 350–400, accompanied by carved jades and a seated, Maya-like figure of greenstone. The positioning of this figure and the bodies nearby, all buried upright with crossed legs, resembles patterns in tombs at Kaminaljuyu in Highland Guatemala; the date, too, is close to a period of marked contact between Tikal and Teotihuacan-related people. Bone chemistry suggests that at least one of the occupants of the tomb came from the Maya region, but spent much of his life at this important Mexican city.


  1. To the west, the Purepecha people, called Tarascan by the Spanish, flourished from 1100 to 1530. The center of the Tarascan empire was their capital city of Tzintzuntzan. From this religious and administrative center, the Tarascans waged war against their enemies, the Aztecs.

    Products such as honey, cotton, feathers, salt, gold, and copper were highly prized by the Tarascans. Neighboring regions that possessed these commodities quickly became a primary target of their military expansion. When conquered, the peoples of these regions were expected to pay tributes of material goods to the Tarascan lord.

    The Aztecs attempted more than once to conquer the Tarascan lands, but never succeeded. This left the Aztecs with a major rival on their western border. In combat they repeatedly suffered grievous losses to the Tarascan armies. For example, in 1478 the ruling Aztec lord, Axayacatl, marched against the Tarascans. He found his army of 24,000 confronted by an opposing force of more than 40,000 Tarascan warriors. A ferocious battle went on all day. Many of the Aztec warriors were badly wounded by arrows, stones, spears, and sword thrusts. The following day, the Aztecs were forced to retreat, having suffered the loss of more than half of their elite warriors.

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