Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico

By George L. Cowgill

(Cambridge University Press, 2015; 312 pgs., illus., $35 paper;


Beginning in about 150 B.C., a great city developed in the fertile Teotihuacan (Nahuatl spelling) Valley some 25 miles northeast of what is now downtown Mexico City. Before long it was the largest city in ancient America with 100,000 to 200,000 residents occupying more than 11.5 square miles. It contained elaborate palaces, well-designed neighborhoods, and dozens of pyramids, including the massive pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. The city flourished for several centuries, but by about A.D. 550 it was in decline, and a century later it was in ruins.

The author, Arizona State University archaeologist George Cowgill, has spent a lifetime studying Teotihuacan, and this is the first comprehensive English language book on the great city. Drawing on his own research as well as that of many other scholars, Cowgill deftly creates a vivid picture of 800 years of Teotihuacan history. Scholars have had difficulty coming to grips with Teotihuacan, not only because of its size and complexity, but also because its inhabitants left no written records. While the city is firmly within Mesoamerican cultural traditions, it lacks the writing system of the Maya, who were 800 miles to the south, and very literate. The presence of a distinct ruling class is far from obvious, and that ubiquitous Mesoamerican institution, the ballcourt, is nowhere to be found. Undaunted, Cowgill tackles all the archaeological problems, giving the reader a clear picture of a huge, vibrant society.

The story begins in about 400 B.C. at the southern end of the Valley of Mexico, 30 miles south of Teotihuacan, at the enigmatic site of Cuicuilco, now largely buried under lava flows. It was the first urban area in central Mexico. Cowgill suggests that volcanic activity in the southern Valley of Mexico as well as to the east around modern Puebla may have caused a migration to the Teotihuacan Valley, where a new city was beginning to rise. By A.D. 1, it already had a population of 20,000.

Teotihuacan has scores of impressive pyramids laid out on the north-south Avenue of the Dead. Temples and palaces are equally impressive, and they are carefully described by the author. Even more impressive are the 2,300 compounds of the ordinary people of Teotihuacan, and it is here that Cowgill is at his best. Some consisted of specialized artisans. Others were peopled by migrants from elsewhere in Mexico, like Oaxaca. They were laid out on a grid that evokes city planning, and very few have been scientifically excavated.

Ancient Teotihuacan is an impressive synthesis of decades of work at the great city. It is heavily illustrated with some 100 photos, nine maps, and three tables, and it is overwhelmingly informative for both the scholar and the layperson. While the central core of Teotihuacan is preserved by the Mexican government, much of the outlying neighborhoods are not. Urban development and modern agriculture are now taking a heavy toll on the great city and threaten to forever destroy much of its archaeological legacy.

Read more Book Reviews in our Fall 2015 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 19 No. 3

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