The Archaeology of Complex Societies: A project presented by the graduate students of The Ohio State University Department of Anthropology


The Valley of Mexico has been home to many different cities and societies, but Teotihuacan is one of the most intriguing. The name isn’t one that would have been used by its people - it is a word in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, meaning “the home of the Gods”. Teotihuacan actually predated the Aztec Empire by more than one thousand years, and thrived alongside many Mayan cities. During what archaeologists believe to be the height of the site’s existence (250-500 CE), it was one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 125,000 to 200,000 people.  Although archaeologists don’t know the specifics, there is a great deal of evidence for Teotihuacan interacting with other regions of Mesoamerica. Pottery made in Mayan and Oaxacan styles has been found at Teotihuacan, and central Mexican styles have been found in Mayan cities. There are also several monuments in Mayan cities that seem to depict warriors from Teotihuacan. Did Teotihuacan trade with other cities? Did people migrate there from Mayan lands? Did they conquer other cities? These are questions that archaeologists are still trying to answer. Regardless, most archaeologists agree that Teotihuacan was a state.

The Valley of Mexico was a region that contained lowlands with lakes and fertile soil bounded by volcanic mountains. Those living there during the first millennium CE would have had access to rich soil for agriculture, wood, and many sources of obsidian (volcanic glass) for tool construction.

Food Subsistence
Bones and seeds discovered while excavating parts of the city suggest that the people of Teotihuacan were eating maize (corn), beans, squash, amaranth, chili peppers, prickly pear cactus, deer, rabbits, turkeys, dogs, ducks, fish, and hares. They were most likely growing the majority of food and supplementing this diet with hunting. There is evidence that the Teotihuacanos were raising rabbits, hares, and dogs as domesticated animals. It’s unclear if they also raised turkeys or if they were hunting them in the wild.

Tool Use
One of the most important resources for tool construction was obsidian. This glasslike stone can be knapped into incredibly sharp blades, and the Teotihuacanos used it to make knives, projectile points, scrapers, and other tools. Scrapers were blades with a single edge that were typically used to separate animal hides from meat, allowing the hide to be made into leather and the meat to be cooked. Knives and other blades would have been used in much the same way as they are today, as cutting tools. Such tools were essential to butchering the animals that formed part of the Teotihuacan diet. Projectile points are the tips of arrows or spears. These weapons would have been used with another important tool, the atlatl. The atlatl, or spear thrower, consisted of a handle made of wood or bone with a notch to hold a spear. It allowed someone to throw a projectile with much more force than an ordinary person could possibly muster, and was essential for both hunting and warfare.

Art and Ideology
Teotihuacan is home to a great deal of artwork, with the most recognizable feature being its large monuments. A street called The Avenue of the Dead was home to a number of pyramids and platforms such as the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. It is believed these buildings were temples because of the animal sculptures on their exterior and because of the burials found beneath them. The outside of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, in particular, is believed to represent the god Quetzalcoatl, or one like him. The burials are of people foreign to the region, which causes archaeologists to suspect that they were sacrificed prisoners captured in war. In addition, the city was filled with vibrant painted murals, some of which survive today. They seem to depict some kind of powerful goddess, but there is little that can be said for certain since we have not decoded their system of writing. It’s important to note that the Teotihuacanos didn’t build monuments for specific people such as kings, a practice that was common among their Mayan neighbors. We don’t know any specific people who lived at Teotihuacan, nor exactly how the city was governed, though archaeologists guess that the site was ruled by a king like many other cities at the time.


Many archaeologists think that Teotihuacan was a state. But is it possible that it was heterarchical instead of hierarchical? What can you use to distinguish between the two? Furthermore, many theorists have linked a number of technologies to different stages of complexity. Teotihuacan possesses monuments, art, and one of the largest populations in the world yet its residents didn’t have metal tools or weapons. Does this make it more or less complex? Should technology be inherently linked to complexity?  

Image Sources:
Background image: Reconstruction of Murals at Teotihuacan (Wolfgang Sauber)

Teotihuacán, Mexico. [Map/Still]. In Britannica Online for Kids. Retrieved from 

In text images from Flickr:  

Obsidian Bifaces by Travis (URL:

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