In a part of Mexico that may have first been inhabited in 400 BCE, archaeologists have long searched for more information about the mysterious people who lived there. Their most recent research has revealed a fascinating new aspect of one of the structures that those people left behind.
Civilizations that existed in Mexico and other parts of Central America before it was conquered by the Spanish are known as Mesoamerican. The Mesoamericans built great cities and monuments, and made important discoveries in everything from agriculture to mathematics. Some of their most recognizable accomplishments are their pyramid-shaped temples.
One of those great cities of Mesoamerica was Teotihuacán. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec people, this means “City of the Gods” or “the place where men become gods”, but it isn’t an Aztec city. It turns out to the contrary that the Aztecs moved there many years before it was built. Its origins date to long before the Aztec became a dominant power.
Teotihuacán was built in what is now Mexico, and the Mexican capital, Mexico City, lies about 30 miles to the southwest of the site. Significantly, at its height, it may have had as many as 200,000 residents living across eight square miles. Consequently, few cities in the world at the time could have compared.
Very little is known about who built Teotihuacán though. People first occupied the area in 400 BCE, and refugees from another city fled a volcano to settle there about 100 BCE. These people may have been responsible for the layout of the city.
The residents of Teotihuacán were farmers and craftsmen, merchants and priests. They worked with obsidian and ceramics to make everything from tools to ornaments to weapons. Their trading routes took in the length and breadth of Mesoamerica. Perhaps most famously, their elaborate religious ceremonies included human sacrifice.
Then, in 750 CE, something happened. It may have been a war, or something else may have caused the fire that swept through the city. Whatever is was, it destroyed most of Teotihuacán, leaving the great city in ruins.
Of what was left of the city, one thing towered above anything else. That was the Pyramid of the Sun, which is the largest structure in Teotihuacán, but it is not the highest point. To find that, you have to leave the Pyramid of the Sun and follow the road known as the Avenue of the Dead.
That road will lead you to the Pyramid of the Moon, 140 feet high and built on higher ground. Beneath the Pyramid of the Moon are the platforms of 12 lesser pyramids. These may have been the sites of sacrifices, both animal and human.
Archaeologists began their research in the central square of Teotihuacán, Plaza de la Luna, in front of the pyramid. Curiously, they were not looking for anything in particular and didn’t expect to find anything under the square. They wanted to make sure the square was properly conserved.
Two organizations were involved in the research. One was the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), helped by the Institute of Geophysics of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). They were using an advanced technique, electrical resistivity tomography, to map the site.
Even without digging, the technology allowed them to see beneath the earth. And what they found was astonishing. As a matter of fact, it might help reveal more about the city, the people who lived there and how they related to the rest of the world.
Under the Plaza de la Luna, the electronic imaging revealed a mysterious tunnel. It was hidden around 33 feet deep. That wasn’t all – the tunnel led directly under the Pyramid of the Moon, to a chamber hollowed out beneath it. The chamber is 49 feet in diameter and lies about 26 feet down. The archaeologists cannot know for sure what’s inside.
Previous discoveries at Teotihuacan have mostly consisted of tombs. They have contained jewelry and items carved in green stone. Besides them, they have also housed deformed human skulls. There are probably similar things under the Pyramid of the Moon. Ancient believers probably connected the chamber to the underworld in some way.
It won’t be clear until further excavation has been done, but the archaeologists believe that the citizens of Teotihuacán may have considered the tunnel a passage to the underworld. The chamber itself could indeed have hosted funeral rites. With that in mind, it could reveal more about the religious beliefs of the original residents of Teotihuacán.
In general, the underworld was an important concept to Mesoamericans. With that in mind, the Aztec and the Maya were just two of the societies that featured it prominently in their beliefs. The idea was that the underworld was below ground and was often found in caves. Consequently, underground spaces became an important place to conduct religious rituals. Traveling downwards was a heroic journey into the underworld.
While many parts of Teotihuacán have been studied, two of the least understood parts are the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. These are the areas that so far have been subject to the least archaeological scrutiny.
Now the archaeologists will aim to excavate the tunnel and chamber. It is expected that they will find grave goods, in the same way as they did in other chambers around the Pyramid of the Moon. On top of that, they hope to find more jewelry as well, or even skulls. The other side of the pyramid may also have another entrance to the tunnel.
Certainly, the other peoples of Mesoamerica considered Teotihuacán very highly. Consequently, anything found there can help shed light not just on Teotihuacán, but also on its place in Mesoamerica as a whole.
The research just goes to show how even the oldest and best known of sites can still conceal important secrets. With every new discovery, the mysteries of Mesoamerica come a little closer to being solved. Consequently, the hidden tunnel under the Pyramid of the Moon is just one part of a larger puzzle.