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History of Teotihuacan Civilization Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 29th, 2019


Between 1st and 7th century AD, Teotihuacan was one of the largest empires in its time that was even larger than Roman Empire. Incidentally, it was during the same time that the Roman Empire was also a formidable civilization many thousands miles away in Europe; during this period the Teotihuacan Empire area of influence is thought to have stretched between Guatemala all the way up to Texas (Millon, 1988).

It is estimated that it was during the 500 AD that the influence of the Teotihuacan reached its peak before it started gradually declining over the next 150 years or so and was virtually non-existent by 750 AD (Archeology.com, 2010). During it height of civilization in 500 AD, Teotihuacan Empire was ranked as number five on the list of the largest cities in the world at the time and one of the earliest and largest Mesoamerican urban centre with inhabitants above 200, 000 persons (Archeology.com, 2010).

By the time that the Teotihuacan civilization was collapsing around 7th century, its city had became a major economic centre and contained some of the most advanced and impressive architectural structures such as the renowned Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the moon.

Several theories have been advanced by archeologists and historians on possible factors that contributed to the collapse of one of the greatest empires in Mesoamerica and in the history of civilizations. Notable convincing theories that have been advanced as the reasons that contributed to disintegration of the Teotihuacan civilization include disease epidemics, drought, economic collapse and foreign invasion (Tainter, 2003).

While there could have been many varied factors that might have interacted and contributed to the collapse of Teotihuacan, there could only be a handful that was central to the disintegration of this civilization which would appear to have been invasion and economic decline.

These two theories would be the focus of my discussion in the following sections where I would be describing why these were the central theories that directly led to collapse of the Teotihuacan, in fact as I will show later in this paper there is only one major factor that led to fall of the Teotihuacan dynasty.

Historical background

The actual origin of the rise of Teotihuacan civilization is not yet well known. However, it is estimated that it must have occurred during the Preclassic period in 100 CE, about 100 AD (Sanders, 1976).

It was originally found as a religious city and built-in Mexica highlands in a valley called Teotihuacan where it derived its name which is taken to mean the “City of gods” and was probably found by the Otomi, Nahua and totonac tribes that are widely credited for its origin (Sanders, 1976). During their earliest periods of civilization, Teotihuacan appeared to have lived and settled alongside another significant tribe in the region referred as Cuicuilco (Sanders, 1976).

Because Teotihuacan had access to an expanse area of Navaja Mountains that contained obsidian deposits, which was a vital trade commodity, they were able to rapidly increase their influence beyond their original are of settlement. The Mesoamerican agricultural trinity that involved beans, maize and squash served to further spur the growth and development of the Teotihuacan because of the increased trade of this commodities in the region.

From an early stage Teotihuacan was able to control the key commodities that were the backbone of the agriculture and trade industry as well as the obsidian mineral that was used in production of ceramics. Teotihuacan, therefore, became not only a strategic city for trade purposes but a significant centre of obtaining this scarce resource at the time as well (Santley, 1989).

In this new arrangement, the purpose of the Teotihuacan city become a crucial one as a location of batter trade that involved exchange of agriculture commodity that it did not produce, with critical minerals that it directly controlled which were obsidian and Anaranjado ceramic (Santley, 1989).

The choice of Teotihuacan location was also strategically located from where it easily became the centre and an integral player of the Mesoamerican trade; from the north it traded with Altavista, was bordered by Tingambato from the west who were also it trade partners, Matacapan from the Gold coast region and finally Tikal Monte Alban tribes from southeast (Santley, 1989). It is due to this economic leverage and strategic position that enabled Teotihuacan to yield the political and cultural clout that it had in the Mesoamerican region.

The figure below is a map of the region during the height of the Teotihuacan civilization in the Mexican area that presents the extent of the empire in context of other cultures that existed at Mesoamerican during the same period as reconstructed by archeologist based on the historical findings.

Figure 1

Teotihuacan civilization in the Mexican area.

Source: Archeological.com, 2010.

Because Teotihuacan was primarily a religious centre and trade city, it happened to become a significant civilization to other tribes in the region due to it religious artifacts that imported to far places like Tikal, Copan, Monte Alban and Kaminaljuyu which were chiefly attracted to it because of its religious themes (Adams, 1977). Indeed the extent and scale of the Teotihuacan in Mesoamerican region reached it far ends and was felt in almost all notable civilizations that existed at the time.

It is from these religious artifacts that had now provided archeologists with crucial information that has enabled them to piece together the true extent of the Teotihuacan Empire, its influence and all the related pieces of the puzzle that made up the Teotihuacan civilization at the time. In the following section of the paper, I am going to describe in detail the rise of the Teotihuacan Empire, structures, culture and factors that made this civilization very influential in Mesoamerica.

This description will provide the foundation from which I will base my theory of the factors that eventually led to its disintegration that I will discuss in another chapter. This because to understand how the Teotihuacan civilization might have possibly collapsed, it is essential to have a working knowledge of their way of life, political structure and economic factors that were central to its power.

Teotihuacan Empire

There is no doubt that the rise of Teotihuacan Empire was very rapid at a time when other influential civilizations such as the Maya also sought to dominate the Mesoamerican region. It is probably this rapid growth that also made the decline and fall of the Teotihuacan as rapid as it has began; within about 150 years, the empire rapidly declined and was virtually non-existent.

At the time of it collapse Teotihuacan city covered an area of approximately 12 square miles with a maximum possible population of 250,000 inhabitants that provided it with the political and economic relevance that it most relied on for its dominance (Diehl, 1989).

It had impressive architectural structures that included pyramids, temples and palaces that were beautifully decorated with stone carvings. Notable architectural structures that adorned the city include the Butterfly Palace, Palace of the jaguars, Palace of the Quetzalcoatl and the Temple of the Feathered Conches (Diehl, 1989).

This was not the only major elements that made the Teotihuacan city stood out; extensive excavations of the archeological sites also indicate that the city had advanced knowledge in the field of medicine, astronomy and theology which would indicate that it probably served as an essential centre of learning as well (Millon, 1974).

The interaction of the Teotihuacan Empire with the Maya civilization served an essential function of furthering the empire’s interest in areas of cultural, economic and political influence in far regions that were previously under the control of the Maya. Indeed, there is archeological evidence of religious artifacts, trade routes and architectural structures that indicated Teotihuacan influence on other civilizations, notably in Maya cities such as Copan, Tikal and Kaminaljuyu (Archeology.com, 2010).

Because Maya was an influential and a very expansive empire in its own right in Mesoamerica, it became one of the most critical and influential empires in the whole of that region. Besides cultural and religious influence, Teotihuacan relied on use of colony towns as a strategy of political administration which enabled it to further its establishment and ensure tight control of critical areas of interest that it wished to have a stronghold.

Huapalcalco and Tepeapulco are some examples of the Teotihuacan colony towns that were located in different areas of critical strategic importance; both of these colonies were located along river tributaries and in proximity to valuable minerals such as quartz, obsidian and lime which were the key trade commodities of the Teotihuacan (Santley, 1989).

As we shall establish later in this section, trade was indeed a central aspect of the Teotihuacan Empire having realized early the strategic importance and leverage that could be obtained from controlling significant trade commodities and its movement.

But because Teotihuacan Empire was faced with logistical challenges that involved transportation like all other civilizations of the time, it had to rely on transport that utilized the rivers.

Control of the river tributaries through which a significant volume of trade was undertaken was, therefore, a significant way of controlling the trade routes that also reinforced their dominance.

This approach of controlling crucial trade routes was one of the methods that must have been contained in the Teotihuacan handbook of conquering other civilizations. In the book “The Collapse of Complex Societies” by Tainter, archeological reconstruction of the Teotihuacan Empire indicates that this civilization had three approaches that they used to conquer and dominate other civilizations in the Mesoamerica region (Tainter, 2003).

The first approach required just the use of military might that involved forcefully taking over the strategic towns of interest and setting up an administrative base from where they would literally run the town so to speak (Tainter, 2003). This approach worked for cities that were near the Teotihuacan city since it involved stationing administrators and military personnel that was permanently based on the village but in close proximity to their headquarter to enable constant supplies as well as ensure effective control of the town.

The second approach involved direct military takeover, as was the case in the previous method, but a different administrative strategy was used. In this case, the Teotihuacan Empire imported and set up a sizable colony of its people that were permanently established in the town as observers that also facilitated the administrative of the town (Tainter, 2003). Finally the Teotihuacan opted to seize and control the significant trade commodities and trade routes where military options were not viable (Tainter, 2003).

This is the strategy that Teotihuacan used to reign over the Cholula tribe that could not have been overcome and administrated militarily; to achieve this, the Teotihuacan would usually capture and dominate weak villages that surround the target in order to isolate it from other partners.

This approach served the intention of cutting off the enemy from crucial trade routes that had now been taken over by Teotihuacan, thereby effectively sabotaging their opponent. Throughout the regions that Teotihuacan dominated, a characteristic pattern could be established that involved three areas of dominance; economic dominance, political dominance and cultural dominance, at other times religious influence was also the case.

This was the legacy of the Teotihuacan Empire in the region and represents the A to Z of the extent of strategic activities that Teotihuacan dynasty applied to conquer other civilizations in the region. We can, therefore, conclude that this four areas, i.e. trade, political, cultural and religion, were the centers of power in which the Teotihuacan Empire was founded (Norman, 2001).

This inference is essential since any theories that had been advanced to explain the collapse of the Teotihuacan Empire must be based on the context of this perspective which must consider these centers of influence from which the city was able to flourish.

In our next section, we are now going to analyze how the actual collapse of the Teotihuacan civilization might have taken place based on all the circumstances that we have discussed above and by particularly paying attention to the roles and influence of the Teotihuacan city in the wider Mesoamerican region. But first let us briefly review the process and stages involved in the collapse of civilizations according to one authority in the subject, Joseph Tainter in his book The Collapse of Complex Society.

Discussion of Collapse

Collapse of complex societies refers to a process of rapid disintegration of a society that must flow “from a higher to a lower level of complexity” (Tainter, 2003).

In order for a society disintegration to be described to have “collapsed” two essential characteristics must be present, i.e., it must take place rapidly and must result to a much less complex society (Tainter, 2003). This is the description of Tainter’s idea of society collapse which he aptly summarizes by stating “A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity” (2003).

The primary characteristics that indicate the process of collapse in a society include reduced specialization in trade and economy by the society members, lack of centralized administrative structure in the society, reduced investment in significant areas of society interest such as in architecture and trade, breakdown in communication channels and overall disintegration of the society system among other factors (Tainter, 2003).

Overall, concept of collapse is described to occur as a result of four major factors; first, because of the inquisitive nature of humans that motivates them to solve problems (Tainter, 2003). Factor number two is because of the nature of the sociopolitical systems of any form of civilization which would require energy by design for its sustainability (Tainter, 2003).

Because of this use of energy required by civilizations, it becomes even more costly when societies expand and become more complex because more energy is required; this is the factor number three (Tainter, 2003).

Finally based on the cost-benefit analysis of the marginal returns that the presence of the civilization is yielding it becomes unnecessary to continue investing in the system anymore which leads to the collapse mainly because of its unsustainability Tainter, 2003). This is what Tainter describes as the “point of diminishing marginal returns”. The essence of this concept is based on the fact that most often collapse of complex societies is usually a factor of the problem-solving abilities of the institutions of the specific empire (2003).

But since the complexity of a civilization is also a factor of the ability of the problem-solving institutions, the results are a cycle whereby problem-solving institutions are used as the driving force of attaining the necessary growth of that the empire requires to expand, what Tainter refers as “complex” (2003).

The downside of this success is the failure of the very problem-solving institutions in addressing the complex phenomenon of the new civilization that they have facilitated, thereby leading to their collapse. The trick therefore according to Tainter’s theory of collapse would be to determine the right point of complexity that a civilization should not seek to surpass lest its problem-solving institutions, which it relies on to function fails, but which he also points it is impossible to achieve (2003).

The gist of Tainter’s theory on collapse is summarized by attributing all forms of social collapse to just one theory of economy; all other factors that are often directly linked to the destruction of a civilization according to him are just side factors that actually emanates from this major factor of economy.

Tainter recognizes that there are indeed limits to economic growth from which point further increase can only lead to increased investment that only realizes marginal returns (2003). To support this theory, Turner provides archeological evidence from bone remains by comparing the nutritional status of Roman subjects before and after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

The point that comparison makes is that Roman subjects appeared malnourished just before the collapse of the empire but improved dramatically thereafter, it collapsed (Turner, 2003).

Closer to our times, Tainter provides a comparative analysis of the cost-benefit analysis in the agricultural sector; “to raise world food production from 1951-1966 by 34%, for example, required increasing expenditures on tractors of 63%, on nitrate fertilizers of 146%, and on pesticides of 300%” (2003). There is no doubt that this figures do not add up because of the sizable energy-deficient that is lost in the process.

Even on matters of environmental pollution control, more energy input in the scale of 520 times would be required for instance, in order to approximately reduce Sulfur dioxide pollution by a factor of just 10 (Turner, 2003). This is probably the reason the US still remains adamant in ratifying the Kyoto protocol in full or committing itself to any long term drastic reductions on environmental pollution.

Theories of Collapse that led to Teotihuacan Fall

Generally, there are seven categories of factors that Tainter acknowledges as causes of collapse in complex societies; this is the consensus that many other experts also advance in their explanation of why civilization has always historically collapsed. These seven theories are resource depletion, catastrophes, inappropriate response, invasion, conflict, mystical factors and economics (Norman, 2001).

Suffice to say that some of these theories hold no water because they are largely not supported by the vast literature of documented historical writings that recorded the rise and fall of notable world civilizations such as the Roman Empire, Cholula civilization or the influential Maya civilization that existed in the 3000 BC (Rosenfield, 2002).

Neither does the archeological evidence that has been unearthed from location of these civilizations appear to support them; a typical example is mystical factors. In this section, I will briefly describe various theories as I seek to relate them to the fall of Teotihuacan civilizations.

We do know for a fact that Teotihuacan Empire mostly relied on a vibrant trade that existed in the larger Mesoamerica region that it exerted its influence. Except for this key sector that Teotihuacan heavily relied on for its survival, there were also other areas of influence that the empire was most notable for which included cultural, political and religion.

Resource depletion theory would, therefore, appear to be a credible reason that would have possibly ended the reign of this dynasty; indeed this is one of the reasons that appear to be a common denominator as a theory of collapse that contributed to the decline of major world civilizations. Resource Depletion theory, in this case, links the collapse of a civilization on lack of crucial resources that a society rely on for its sustainability which could be caused by reduced yields, environmental changes or mismanagement (Tainter, 2003).

If therefore, for some unknown reasons the production of agricultural yield of the three types of farm commodities drastically reduced during the time of Teotihuacan reign, this could explain the fall of the empire. But for this to have happened significant changes in environment must be shown to have occurred continuously during the 150 years that the Teotihuacan Empire was gradually collapsing.

Because there is no form of evidence that indicates any change in climate that could have reduced crop yield for this long duration of time, we can determine that this was not one of the primary reasons that led to the fall of Teotihuacan civilizations.

It is unlikely that the short duration of climatic changes and droughts that are cited to have coincided with the fall of Teotihuacan would significantly have impacted on the might of this empire, nor the archeological evidence of malnourished skeletons. In the latter case, other factors such as war would provide the same evidence since in times of war food and other essentials usually become scarce commodities.

Not even the theory of inappropriate response that attributes the collapse of complex society to inability of an empire to adopt to cultural changes would seem plausible due to lack of evidence to support such claims. Such is also the case with catastrophes, which is only credible if there is evidence of it occurrence that is well documented and collaborated by other events of the time as would be the case of volcanoes, earthquakes and diseases.

This too does not appear to have been the cause that led to the fall of Teotihuacan Empire. It is mostly thought that Teotihuacan collapse is attributed to three fundamental theories; foreign invasion, collapse of trade route and probably internal unrest (Rosenfield, 2002). The latter has been advanced as a theory more recently because of the selective nature of the manner that the city structures were burned down.

It attempts to disapprove the earlier widely held theory that attributed the burning of the city to foreign invasion because it was thought to have been undertaken on the whole town. With this shift of the archeological evidence, it would appear that the city was probably burned down because of internal conflict between the elites and people of lesser classes, primarily because the burning was only undertaken on architectural structures of the elites.

However, I must critique this theory on two fronts; one because history indicates that powerful empires applied tight leash on their subjects using apparatus of power that were often in control of the elites, which would mean that any possibility of an internal coup by lesser members of the societies would have been met and vanquished very firmly.

Two, I would think that the strategy of seizing power has not yet changed even after thousands of years, more so since the present plan of forcefully seizing power are derived from the lessons of history which did not involve burning of palaces and temples by the dissidents.

This leaves us with only two theories and only one very credible theory that must have caused the historical Teotihuacan Empire to collapse. There is no doubt that the collapse of Teotihuacan was attributed to trade, which would, therefore, make the theory of economics as the most credible version of what might have caused Teotihuacan collapse.

If there was foreign invasion in the city, then that must be viewed as the last straw that finally sealed the fate of this once great empire having been severely sabotaged economically and therefore very weak at the time. If new political alliances in the region started taking shape over the long duration that Teotihuacan started declining, it would explain the systematic collapse of the trade routes that the empire had established throughout the Mesoamerican region that finally rendered it irrelevant.

More likely, the Teotihuacan civilization collapsed because it was unable to effectively sustain itself because of its large areas of influence that had become costly, cumbersome and impossible to administrate which would also mean it was becoming increasingly difficult to secure and control the trade corridors.


Give that Teotihuacan Empire only relied on trade and had noticeably failed to foresee the need to diversify its sectors of influence; this outcome would not be very surprising.

Even if this was not exactly the case, based on the theory of diminishing marginal returns, it would still appear that the collapse of Teotihuacan was as a result of trade. Because trade was the tenet that Teotihuacan Empire was found, built and sustained, it would stand to reason that any form of adverse attack that indirectly or directly interrupted trade had implications of sabotaging the empire because of its reliance on trade routes and thereby undermine its relevance in the whole of Mesoamerican region.


Adams, R. (1977). Transformations in Prehistoric Mesoamerica. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Archeology.com. (2010). Teotihuacan: The City of the gods. Web.

Diehl, R. (1989). A Shadow of Its Former Self: Teotihuancan during the Teotihuacan: A.D. 700-900. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

Rosenfield, E. (2002). Piecing Together the Fall of Teotihuacan. Web.

Millon, R. (1974). Teotihuacan in New World Archaeology: Theoretical and Cultural Transformations. San Francisco: Freeman and Company.

Millon, R. (1988) The Last Years of Teotihuacan Dominance in the Collapse of Ancient States and Civilizations. Arizona: University of Arizona Press.

Norman, Y. (2001). Theories of Collapse of States. Web.

Sanders, W. (1976). The Agricultural History of the Basin of Mexico in the Valley of Mexico. Mexico: University of New Mexico Press.

Santley, R. (1989). Obsidian Working, Long-Distance Exchange, and the Teotihuacan Presence on the South Gulf Coast in Mesoamerica After the Decline of Teotihuacan. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

Tainter, J. (2003). The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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