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Teotihuacan . . . the many secrets hidden behind the Pyramid of the Moon

Teotihuacan . . . the many secrets hidden behind the Pyramid of the Moon

Many of you have probably visited Teotihuacan.  It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Americas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Virtually all of you have watched television documentaries on this mysterious, ancient city.  This is something that the television documentaries don’t tell you.  In architectural history and urban planning classes at Georgia Tech, we studied Teotihuacan intently, because according to all the “rules,” it’s a city that shouldn’t be there.

You probably didn’t even notice that large mountain framing your photo or the television image of the Pyramid of the Moon, did you?  Perhaps the more artistic of our readers briefly thought how nice it was for Mother Nature to build a mountain north of Teotihuacan in order to frame your favorite photos from your Mexican vacation.  That mountain’s name is Cerro Gordo, which means “Fat Hill.”   Cerro Gordo is not what you thought it was.  Be prepared for some OMG moments.

In its heyday between around 200 AD and 550 AD, Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities in the world. At its peak size around 450 AD, the city covered 30 km² or over 11 12 square miles, and probably housed a population of around 150,000 people . . . with one estimate reaching as high as 250,000.   In a Pre-Industrial city of 150,000, there would be approximately 30,000 able-bodied adult men. Remember that number.  The rule of thumb for Pre-Industrial societies was that at least 80% of the population must be farmers or herdsmen in order to feed all of their society.  If none of the residents of Teotihuacan were farmers, then in order for the city to survive there would necessarily been 3,000,000 members of farm families, living in walking distance of the city.  That is highly unlikely.

The city plan of Teotihuacan was tilted 15 1/2 degrees.

North Americans eat 5.46 pounds of food a day.   Much of it is protein and energy intensive.  We can assume that the residents of Teotihuacan ate food that was far less rich in protein, fat and carbohydrates, so we still would be at least be looking at somewhere around at least four pounds a day.  That’s 600,000 pounds of day that must be hauled on the backs of porters. Say they averaged 50 pounds on their backs at distances up to 20 miles.   Teotihuacan would have needed a minimum of 12,000 people just to haul and distribute the food. 

There was also the need for hauling firewood, charcoal, lime and other commodities to all the households.  That activity would have required another 5,000 or so men . . . maybe many more  . . . because it is known that Teotihuacan permanently stripped the trees off all the surrounding mountains, wood haulers would have to walk at least 15 miles (24 km) to obtain wood.  By the end of Teotihuacan’s occupation, the nearest trees were 25 miles (40 km) away.  Most forests never grew back.  The top soil washed into the valley during the summer rain season, covering the black peat soil that supported the large city with sandy clay.  Only scrub plants and cacti now grow on the rocky slopes of Cerro Gordo.

The people of Mesoamerica never developed beasts of burden or wheeled vehicles.   How would it be possible to grow enough food year round and distribute daily for a city of 150,000 inhabitants. Of course, there was no such thing as refrigeration, so it would be mandatory to import animal and fish protein every day.  Many vegetative sources of food, especially fruit, would rot or mold if not regularly supplied.  Even ancient cities such as Sumer and Babylon had donkeys and carts to haul goods, plus they were on a large river, where cargo could be delivered to the front gate.

I have never seen any discussion by anthropologists about this mind-boggling problem. They will write professional papers and dissertations about specific locations where food might have been grown, but they never look at the big picture and it is a very big picture! How was this city able to construct such massive monuments and still feed itself?

Teotihuacan (The Place Where the Gods Were Created) was the name given this city by the Mexica (Axtecs) about 500 years after its abandonment.  Its original name in Proto-Totonac was Tula, which was derived from words meaning “Place of the Reeds.”  Apparently, the city began in the midst of a swamp.  In Itza Maya and Itsate Creek (Hitchiti), Etula, tula and tulapa means: principal town, town (with a mound) and village.  The same words in Mvskoke (Muskogee) are etvlwa, tvlwa and tvlofa.   The Creek mother town, now known as Etowah Mounds, also began in the midst of a swamp.  In other words, Etula (Etowah Mounds) was named after Tula (Teotihuacan).

For many decades the presumption among archaeologists was that everything there was to know about Teotihuacan had already been discovered.  THEN over the past 14 years about everything that they thought they knew about the massive city has changed.  My generation was taught that unlike the bloodthirsty Mexica (Aztecs) the priests of Tula did not sacrifice humans.  Now a network of tunnels and caves are being explored under the Pyramid of the Sun and the central plaza.  Archeologists have found many sacrificial victims.  In fact, some priests wore necklaces made out of human jaw bones. 

My generation was taught that the city was founded around 400 BC and that construction began on the Pyramid of the Sun around 200 BC and the Pyramid of the Moon around a century later. The city was abandoned around 750 AD, when it was attacked by Chichimec barbarians.  A few survivors or perhaps Chichimecs lived in the ruins of the city after then for a century or two.

Feathered Serpent God

Now scientists know that Teotihuacan began as a small village around 300 BC and became a planned city around 100 BC.  Construction did not begin on the big pyramids until around 250 AD.  Most of the construction continued at frantic pace until around 350 AD.  The city reached its maximum population around 450 AD. Scientists have found increasing levels of malnutrition after then.  The population started a gradual decline until around 550 AD, when there was a rebellion of the commoners against the elite.  All of the public buildings and the palatial homes of the elite were burned at that time.  Some commoners continued to occupy  residential neighborhoods until around 750-800 AD, but the public buildings were never reconstructed.

The premier deity of Teotihuacan was an invisible Sun Goddess that contemporary anthropologists have elevated to the status of the Great Earth Mother goddess of Celtic cultures in Europe.  Other deities included the Fire God, Storm God, Feathered Serpent, the Old God, the War Serpent, the Netted Jaguar, the Pulque God and the Fat God.  The ritualistic use of psychedelic morning glory seeds was a major aspect of the worship of the Invisible Sun Goddess.  In several murals, she is portrayed with a garland of morning glory vines in her hair. 

The Pyramid of the Sun is larger than most of the Egyptian pyramids.  In the Americas, only the Cholula Pyramid near Pueblo, Mexico is larger.   The interior of the Pyramid of the Sun has never been excavated, In 2004, physicists employed by the Institutio de Archaeologia E Historia de Mexico  installed a device in a man-made cave under the Pyramid of the Sun to detect muons, sub-atomic particles left over when cosmic rays hit Earth.

The particles pass through solid objects, leaving tiny traces that the device will measure, like an x-ray machine, in a search for burial chambers inside the monolith. As there are fewer muons in an empty space than in solid rock or earth, scientists will be able to spot any holes inside the pyramid. 

One the discoveries by this device has already changed the understanding of this massive structure.  A temple was found underneath the last level of construction on the pyramid’s cap.  It contained a statue of the Mesomerican fire god and a ceremonial hearth, in which a “Sacred Fire” was kept burning 24 hours a day.   So far, nothing has been found in the caves and tunnels underneath the pyramid that is associated with a Sun Deity.  Thus, the Pyramid of the Sun may actually be the Pyramid of the Fire God.

The current belief is that the heart of Teotihuacan developed on an island of dry land in a swamp.  There was a cave temple in a village on the dry land that around 100 BC began growing rapidly.  It is theorized that the swampy environs enabled local farmers to more food than normal for the region. That theory does not seem to explain why a small village exploded into one of the world’s largest cities with some of the world’s largest buildings in a relatively short period of time.

People of One Fire readers will soon learn in our series on Creek religious practices that the ancestors of the Creeks also worshiped an invisible sun goddess.  The Master of Life (Master of Breath) was considered to be a female until the mid-1800s when Protestant missionaries pressured the Creeks to label their only deity a male.  Also, a class of Creek priests, known as the Keepers of the Fire maintained sacred fires in their temples 24/7 until the early 1800s, when disruptions caused by war and forced removal terminated many Creek traditions. Why is it that the Swift Creek Culture communities in the Southeastern United States bloomed and suddenly collapsed at the same time as Teotihuacan? There might be an environmental connection.  We’ll talk about that another time.

Nevertheless,  it should be mentioned that in 1969, an archaeological investigation led by Dr. Arthur Kelly at the 9FU14 village site on the Chattahoochee River in southwest Metro Atlanta found extensive evidence that its inhabitants grew both psychedelic morning glories and an indigenous sweet potato, developed from a morning glory species.   The South American sweet potato was also developed from a morning glory species.  When Kelly’s theory was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, his professional peers rolled in the floor laughing.  He who laughs last, laughs best.   This village on the Chattahoochee River was occupied during the exact same time period as Teotihuacan.

Gourmet grape Koolaid

Look at the upper right hand corner of the photograph at top of the article.  You will see several structures and a radar dome.  Its the air traffic control center for Mexico City.  I recommend the gourmet grape koolaid,  ham sandwiches and bananas there highly. They were served to me by the astonished engineers at the radar facility.  In that era, there was nothing on Cerro Gordo other than the radar facility, but herds of goats and cattle, tended by a deaf and speechless Native shepherd.   Don’t ever climb a 10,030 feet tall mountain without a large canteen of water . . . unless someone at the top has a pot of grape Koolaid sitting in the refrigerator!

Young men do illogical things sometimes.  Fortunately, my faux pas was not drugs or hang gliding, but a sudden urge to climb the mountain behind the Pyramid of the Moon, without a map or any clue of where I was going.   Back then there were no such things as satellite photos, Google Maps, cellular phones, internet web sites or even personal computers.  I did have a compass in my camera bag, though. Like a scene from some science fiction movie, I suddenly stopped doing my assigned tasks of photographing the buildings at Teotihuacan. “Something” drew me to walk over the Pyramid of the Moon and head straight up the extinct volcano.  The lessons I learned on that mountain top would not be fully understood until the 21st century. 

Satellite image of Cerro Gordo

From Teotihuacan, Cerro Gordo looks like a modest, gently sloped mountain . . . a fat hill.  However, from space it looks like a square volcano.  Indeed, it is very similar in shape to the early platform mounds built both in Mexico and the Southeastern United States.  Back then the landscape of the 4.5 miles horizontal distance between the Pyramid of the Sun and the peak of Cerro Gordo was littered with artifacts . . . mostly brightly painted Mesoamerican potsherds and tons of obsidian blades, but also some Pre-Hispanic figurines.  There were also many, many building ruins!  The “downtown” of Teotihuacan extended all the way to the mountain.  There were also several ancient reservoirs for storing water.

The birdseye view below from the top of Cerro Gordo looking down on Teotihuacan is a scan of a 35 mm slide that has been exposed to heat through the years.   I apologize for the low resolution, but I “tinkered” with selective color spectrums to reveal those building ruins to you.  Look at the right foreground, beneath the mountain and you will see the dark shades of large structures and in the center a large mound, covered in scrub trees.   Those areas are not only outside the federally owned archaeological zone, but under the jurisdiction of different municipality than most of Teotihuacan.   Its planning commission allowed the development of subdivisions, shopping centers and a SuperWalmart in this world class archaeological zone.  Historic preservationists throughout Mexico were outraged. 

This was the first time that I had ever been outside the USA, except for the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.  Had I landed on another planet?

Cerro Gordo is on the horizon.  Somehow, I don’t think that I am in Dixie anymore.  These are fruit-bearing prickly pear cacti. 

Maybe this is not such a good idea . . . but I can see Cerro Gordo.

How do these trees live? There is not a single spring or creek on this mountain!

Hm-m the trail ends up ahead and the slope is getting steep.

While climbing up the slope of Cerro Gordo, I did notice ancient stone walls from time to time. Most were covered by scrub plants.  However, the mountainside was composed of rocks and boulders, so the stacked stones did not seem that significant to a young architect-to-be.  At that time in my life, I didn’t dream that I would ever be researching the cultural connection between Mesoamerica and the Southeast. 

Who could have predicted the future?

Actually, typical of most young men, what most was on my mind that day was the senorita named Alicia, who lived in the Colonia Nueva Sta. Maria neighborhood . . . where I lived when not out in the campos.   She was of Sephardic Jewish heritage.  In 2010, I would never have recognized the significance of that inscription a mile high in the Great Smoky Mountains, which honored a Sephardic wedding in 1615, had I not so long ago been mucho romantically involved with a Mexican Sephardic Princess.

At the crest of the mountain was a macabre scene.   There were thousands of obsidian atlatl points and Mesoamerican sword blades. Most were in perfect condition.  Here and there were clusters of human bone fragments.  A long, long time in the past, there had been a desperate battle here.  Apparently, it was the last stand for somebody.  Perhaps the revolting commoners had driven the surviving soldiers of the Teotihuacan elite to the top of the mountain.  Maybe there is another story.  It is all speculation.

View of the Teotihuacan from the top of Cerro Gordo. I was standing on a low stone pyramid, built as a place for Aztec emperors to meditate.

Once over the crest, the stones changed from basalt to granite. I started seeing ancient ruins. They were built with stacked stones.

Beyond the crest, I began to see ancient stone ruins.  They were not refined like the buildings down in the city . . . more like utilitarian fortifications and water reservoir walls.  The grass inside the crater of the extinct volcano was intense green with cattle and sheep happily grazing away.  It was surrealistic.  On one side of the wall was a rocky desert, where only goats thrived.  Inside the crude stone pillars, the landscape became as lush as a manicured golf course.  I strongly suspect that in earlier times, this crater was filled with water.  There seemed to be the fragments of old stone cisterns running down a swale on the mountainside.

A pecked “solar cross” at Teotihuacan

I also began to see crude petroglyphs, not the refined art found in the valley.  Again . . . I was so young and still in college.  I thought they were “cool,” but not directly connected to what I was supposed to be learning on the fellowship.  The most peculiar petroglyphs were crosses surrounded by circles that were pecked into boulders.  They looked exactly like the symbols used on architectural and engineering site plans for center point.”  

In 1997,  Dr. Esther Pasztory  published a book that finally addressed the practicalities of life in Teotihuacan . . .  Teotihuacan, an Experiment in Living.   Pasztory is a professor in Pre-Columbian Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University. She teaches the art of both Mesoamerica and the Andes.  She focuses on the work of art as a source of evidence for the reconstruction of ancient cultures related to but separate from archaeological and textual data.  However,  by being focused on the major civilizations of Mesoamerica and Peru, she missed the connections of this symbol in other parts of the world.

Fabric found at Etowah Mounds . . . It was like linen, but woven with mulberry bark fibers and somehow permanently dyed with natural colors.

Pasztory spent a significant period of time exploring both the federally-owned archaeological zone and vast territory around it, where most of the residents of Teotihuacan lived.  She also drove up to the top of  Serra Gordo.  She not only found the pecked circle crosses on Cerro Gordo, but also found them down in the valley, both within the central core of the city and in some surrounding neighborhoods.  She thinks that these are some sort of surveyor’s markers.  This may or may not be true, because the symbol elsewhere is religious or political.

Readers of Creek & Uchee descent will recognize the basic cross and circle symbol as the Sacred Fire.  It is considered the “coat of arms” of the town of Etula, which is now called Etowah, but was named after the original name of the city also called Teotihuacan.  Remnants of clothing was found in some of the burials excavated at Mound C at Etowah.   Priests and rulers wore woven garments that had patterns on them consisting of a Maya blue background with white and black sacred fire symbols.  These are the colors of the Creek Wind Clan.

Rifle enthusiasts would call this symbol a cross hair,  but I would see it again two years later on boulders in southern Sweden and Denmark.  There it was called a “Sun Wheel.”  There were also concentric circles and “stars” on these boulders.  They dated from the Bronze Age, but were very similar to petroglyphic boulders found in Northeast Georgia, USA.  The sun wheel is the most ubiquitous symbol of Bronze Age and Iron Age.  It is the inspiration for the Celtic and Scottish Crosses.

Royal Sun – Bornholm, Denmark

The Bronze Age Scandinavian sun wheel, which has circles in all four quarters and around it is called a Royal Sun. Scandinavia was inhabited by a different ethnic group in the Bronze Age than in the Iron Age up until today.  What is really mysterious,  though, is that the Royal Sun of Denmark and Skåne (southern tip of Sweden) is IDENTICAL to the Maya glyph for Royal Sun, which accompanies the names of all Maya high kings on stelas.  This glyph is also seen on Boulder Six at Track Rock Gap and on many examples of Proto-Creek arts.  How did Bronze Age symbol for a pre-Scandinavian king became the symbol for a king in Mexico and the Creek homelands of the Southeastern United States?

The people of Bronze Age Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway were NOT the same ethnic groups, who dominate these nations today.  Their Bronze Age peoples had black hair, bronze skin and non-Caucasian facial features. These peoples buried their leaders in log crypts within cone-shaped mounds, just like the Adena People of Eastern North America. Most Scandinavian burial mounds also had ditches around them like Adena mounds.  Coastal peoples in Ireland and western France built shell rings.

A catastrophic storm or tsunami wiped out the Bronze Age civilization in Denmark and southern Sweden around 1200 BC.   A 20 year long rainstorm forced the evacuation of Ireland around 2350 BC.  This is roughly the time that the earliest pottery appeared on the Lower Savannah River and shell rings appeared on the Georgia Coast.  An invasion of people from the Island of Britain, carrying Iron Age weapons pushed the aboriginal “Black Irish” into the western mountains of Ireland.

What can you say?   It is obvious that the Bronze Age symbol for a king in northwestern Europe was the same as a Great Sun (king) in southern Mexico or the Lower Southeastern United States.  The “pecked rock” circle shows up on a glyph at Etula (Etowah Mounds) and at Palenque in the Chiapas Highlands.  We can only assume that there was direct contact between these peoples at some time in the past.


In the level mesa on top of the mountain, were numerous ruins of fieldstone structures.

A big surprise on the high resolution satellite imagery

Once past the crest or former volcano’s lip, the grade on Cerro Gordo becomes much less severe.  In fact, there are areas that are almost flat. Scattered about over this mesa are piles of fieldstone that seem to have belonged to buildings many centuries ago.  These piles have the same “look” as the ruins of buildings at the top of the Track Rock Terrace Complex.   Were they the “gods” who actually found Teotihuacan, as stated by the Aztecs?  Was this the location of the observatory for Teotihuacan?  The circle and cross glyphs might have something to do with astronomical activities.   These piles may just represent the homes of farmers.  However, a promontory would certainly be a logical location to build structures associated with Teotihuacan’s Sun Goddess.

A search of Spanish language archaeological papers on Cerro Gordo revealed very little interest in the mountain.  Someone has tried to develop it as a recreational area for nearby residents.  In the high resolution satellite imagery one can see picnic tables and sheds, plus some gravel parking lots at locations with spectacular views.  However, the access to the top has never been significantly improved.  There are many mores roads on top than when I climbed the mountain, but at best they are one lane graveled jeep trails.

I studied high resolution satellite imagery in an effort to identify telltale evidence of more buildings and earthworks on top of Cerro Gordo. Then I switched to analyzing the slopes of the mountain and was stunned at what I saw.  Most of the mountain’s slopes were once agricultural terraces.   Back when I climbed straight up the mountain, I passed through these terraces.  Most of the soil has washed away, while the scrub brush conceals the stacked rocks from viewers in the valley and the top of the mountain. 

A terrace complex on another mountain near Teotihuacan was thoroughly studied studied in 2005 by Dr. Julia Perez Perez of the Anthropology Faculty at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).  UNAM does not have departments.  The Cerro San Lucas Terrace Complex is definitely Pre-Columbian and appears to have been cultivated contemporaneously with the life span of Teoihuacan.  Its appearance on satellite imagery is identical to the terraces on Cerro Gordo.   I could find no published article that suggests that Gringo archaeologists are aware of the terrace farming around Teotihuacan. 

So now we know how Teotihuacan was able to feed itself efficiently.  It was surrounded by enormous mountainside terrace complexes that were in relatively short walking distances from the city.  Apparently, a climatic change occurred that caused these complexes to be no longer able to feed the population . . . or perhaps the population just grew too large for the local farmers to support. 

There could been several thousand agricultural terraces on Cerro Gordo.  This is just one small section of the mountain.


The terraces on Cerro San Lucas represent a minuscule percentage of the terraces on Cerro Gordo.




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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Wow, that ties a lot of your work together. Always a very interesting read. Thank you.


    Fascinating as always and way more than my brain can sift through in one sitting. I’ll be reading it several times. Good stuff.


    Hey Richard,
    I found the article linked below today and had a question about what was carved into the Wind jewel. On the 4th line down, the 4th glyph is that a variation of the Maya royal sun from Palenque shown above? I have never heard of a wind jewel, do any of the other people in the Americas have anything like this? It appears to be in great shape for being buried for centuries, so this must have been important and buried carefully.
    Again thanks for all you do!

    • Hey Wayne
      I have seen that glyph before . . . both in Mexico and in Georgia. It is derived from the Royal Sun glyph. It seems to say “Half Royal Sun”. Perhaps it is the symbol for the son or daughter of a Great Sun. Just guessing. There are folks, like David Stuart, who have spent their life trying to figure out all the meanings of Maya glyphs! LOL


        Hey Richard,
        I just spent a few minutes on Google earth looking at Cerro Gordo. HOLY COW!! If all the lines running across the slopes are old terraces it would have been an amazing sight! Even the hills around Cerro Gordo were terraced.
        Most of them seem to be lines of brush now but some are being used. Seeing this really helps me to understand how large these cities were. I hope most of the stuff you saw laying on the ground has not been picked up and put on the black market, it would be so cool to see it still there.

        • They are in a box in my storage bin. I was legally allowed to send 100 kg (220 lbs) of artifacts back home, to use in teaching classes at Georgia Tech. However, each piece was individually approved by Dr. Roman Pina-Chan, Director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia as not being significant to the INAH archaeological studies.


    Richard, it just seems to me like you are able to discover the truth before all these experts can figure out their nose is a 1- 2 connection. Another Great discovery!!! Thank You.

    • Mark, there is nothing anyone can say about those royal suns. The exact symbol found at Etowah Mounds and in Maya cities was in use by the Bronze Age people of Denmark 1800 years earlier . . . 1800 years!


    Bravo on your post Richard. I just attended a 2 day free Archaeology symposium at the LACMA in LA. The museum is currently hosting an impressive collection of most of artifacts found at Teo, including artifacts more recently extracted from the tunnel underneath the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. In the open Q&A I asked the panel of archaeologists all studying and publishing papers about Teo for over 30 years. When I asked them if any LIDAR scans have been done of Cerro Gordo to see if there were settlements, ruins or even tombs, they all giggled and balked for a moment until one archaeologist dismissively answered that there was one partial LIDAR scan done of the mountain and “some terracing and one ruin of a small structure was found”…that was it. In my mind, since archaeologists have failed to find any of the rulers of Teo and the more recent tunnel excavation also came up empty handed why not explore Cerro more? The egyptians buried their rulers at the Valley of the Kinds which is a similarly shaped mound although not volcanic. The temples at Teo were aligned with that mountain, so it seems very logical they would put their rulers there, higher up and closer to the “gods” whoever they were. Thank you for your post. You are definitely on to something that for some strange reason archaeologists are avoiding. Maybe its funding, maybe its obstruction…we cant know until we dig deeper! Thanks again for thinking outside the box and sharing. we need more people like you in the field. I am what they would condascendingly call an “amateur archaeologist” with a bachelors and several field seasons under my belt.


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