Teotihuacán, one of the most influential Mesoamerican cultures, has witnessed devastating earthquakes since the dawn of the American civilizations. This city located in the Central Valley of Mexico, which flourished between 150 B.C. and 650 A.D., was the scene of a highly developed society that built imposing pyramids and temples.

According to a recent study, the expansion and rapid growth of Teotihuacán could be related to the volcanic eruptions of Popocatépetl (50-100 A.D.) and Xitle (around 300 A.D.), which left this city as a strategic point of union in the Central Valley.

However, researchers have identified the possibility that earthquakes may have also played a significant role in the evolution of Teotihuacan architectural styles.

Geographical location of the city-state of Teotihuacan (red star) and some contemporary cities (orange triangles) during the Classic and Epiclassic periods
Geographical location of the city-state of Teotihuacan (red star) and some contemporary cities (orange triangles) during the Classic and Epiclassic periods. Credit: Raúl Pérez-López et al.

Through systematic archaeoseismological analysis, various archaeoseismic effects (EAEs) have been found in the main pyramids and temples of the city, such as cracks in the corners, displacement and rotation of masonry blocks, wall collapse, and destruction of the upper parts of the buildings.

These EAEs suggest that at least five destructive earthquakes would have affected Teotihuacán between the Tzacualli-Miccaotli (100-150 A.D.) and Metepec (600 ± 50 A.D.) periods. Researchers estimate that these seismic events could have been caused by a megathrust earthquake of magnitude greater than 8.5 in the Mesoamerican Trench, a major subduction zone in the Pacific Ocean, or by an intraplate earthquake in the Mexico Basin.

The novelty of this study lies in the probability that these earthquakes were the cause of the evolution of the Teotihuacan architectural style, who expanded the main religious and political buildings, such as the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, and rebuilt the Temple of the Feathered Serpent.

Layout and plan view of the city of Teotihuacan. a. Plan view of the archaeological zone of Teotihuacan and the pyramids and temples. The red and blue dots indicate the location of the Archaeological Effects of the Earthquake (EAE)
Layout and plan view of the city of Teotihuacan. a. Plan view of the archaeological zone of Teotihuacan and the pyramids and temples. The red and blue dots indicate the location of the Archaeological Effects of the Earthquake (EAE). Credit: Raúl Pérez-López et al.

Teotihuacán, a monumental city and a city-state (22 km2 at its peak), had an estimated population between 100,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. Its imposing structures, such as the Pyramid of the Moon, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, were erected around a grand avenue over 2 km long (Avenue of the Dead).

The city reached its maximum population between 100 and 200 A.D., during the Xolalpan and Metepec phases. However, from 550 A.D. onwards, a drastic population decline, fires, and building collapses were reported, marking the beginning of the Epiclassic Period in the central highlands of Mexico. The abandonment of the city is related to the exodus to Xochicalco and the flourishing of Toltec culture in Tula.

Researchers conclude that at least two strong earthquakes (Intensity VIII-IX) affected Teotihuacán in antiquity, with a major impact on the development of its architectural styles. Three other damaging earthquakes (Intensity ≤ VIII) would have also occurred during the Tlamimilolpa, early Xolalpan, and late Metepec phases.

Spatial distribution of the Archaeological Effects of the Earthquake (AEE) in the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (OT, Old Temple and NT, New Temple). a. General plan view of the pyramid. b. West stairway of the OT, c. and d. West façade of OT. e. Block rotation (yellow), block extrusion (yellow arrows) and broken corners (white arrows) affecting the main staircase of the west façade of the Old Temple. f. Broken corners by floating immersion affecting the south side of the TO of a touched sculpture
Spatial distribution of the Archaeological Effects of the Earthquake (AEE) in the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (OT, Old Temple and NT, New Temple). a. General plan view of the pyramid. b. West stairway of the OT, c. and d. West façade of OT. e. Block rotation (yellow), block extrusion (yellow arrows) and broken corners (white arrows) affecting the main staircase of the west façade of the Old Temple. f. Broken corners by floating immersion affecting the south side of the TO of a touched sculpture. Credit: Raúl Pérez-López et al.

The spatial pattern of the EAEs and the orientation of the cracks suggest that the Mesoamerican Trench could be the seismic source. However, the possibility of an intraplate earthquake cannot be ruled out.

Analysis of liquefaction and deformation of sediments from Lake Texcoco could shed more light on the paleoseismic records that affected the central basin of Mexico.

Earthquakes played a fundamental role in the evolution of the ancient city of Teotihuacán, significantly impacting its architectural development and ultimately contributing to its decline and abandonment.


Sources

Raúl Pérez-López, Natalia Moragas-Segura, et al., Teotihuacan ancient culture affected by megathrust earthquakes during the early Epiclassic Period (Mexico). Journal of Archaeological Science, vol.55, doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2024.104528


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