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Before they became an empire, the Mexica –aka the Aztecs– were a nomadic tribe looking for a place to settle. On their way to Mexico’s central valley they passed through the ruins of a monumental city; so impressed were they with the majesty and sophistication of the ancient metropolis, they concluded no mortal men could have been able to build it.

They named the place Teotihuacán: The city where Men became Gods.

To this day, and despite some impressive archeological discoveries in recent years, there’s still a lot of mysteries surrounding this Pre-Columbian civilization –our remaining ignorance is best highlighted by the fact that, after all these years, we still don’t know the original name of the city, and are forced to identify them with the term given by the Aztecs. We know that by 450 AD Teotihuacán was the most powerful city in all of Mesoamerica, its influence reaching even the remote nation-states of the Maya in the south-east jungles; we also know that its end was not peaceful, given the evidence that its major monuments were burned around 550 AD. But why exactly did Teotihuacán fall into ruin?

Linda Manzanilla, an anthropologist with Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México has published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which she proposes Teotihuacan’s collapse was not due external threats or natural catstrophes, but caused by internal clashes between groups with differing economic interests.

Manzanilla is basing her claims on her examination of parts of the ruins, along with an analysis of human remains and other artifacts that have been found in the area. She suggests that because of volcanic eruptions in the first and fourth centuries, people were forced to move from the southern basin, and wound up in Teotihuacan, which resulted in a mix of ethnicities. Activity markers, nutritional patterns, isotopes and ancient DNA analysis showed that the immigrants (some of whom brought specialized skills along with them) tended to live on the outskirts of the city in different neighborhoods and were given specific jobs by businessmen that helped to bolster the economy. But it also led to rivalries between the neighborhoods. As time passed, she believes that tensions arose between wealthy businessmen, neighborhood leaders and those that were part of the government. The tension was increased, she claims, by the government insisting on retaining control of all natural resources. Eventually, that tension boiled over and the result was an angry mob of people burning down major parts (administration and ritual buildings) of the city and trashing sculptures and other iconic structures, and eventually to total collapse of the city.

Manzanilla’s theory supports another separate study –in which she also collaborated– performed by academics from the Institute of Investigations in Applied Mathematics and Systems (IIMAS), who created a mathematical model which supports the theory that Teotihuacán was not ruled by a centralized authority –i.e. a king or emperor– but rather was organized in a “co-government” represented in a collective, managerial division of the different neighborhoods conforming the city. This theory IMO might explain why recent attempts to discover the tombs of Teotihuacán’s rulers have so far proved unsuccesful.

All these new ideas about Teotihuacán paint their culture more like an economic enterprise than a colonizing army. It’s almost as if they were the Templars of ancient Mesoamerica –and just like their European counterparts, they attracted the envy and resentment of too many enemies.

In our modern times in which the 1% think of themselves as living deities, the ancient city where Men became Gods has now become a soberly prescient cuationary tale.


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