Were the rulers of the great ancient Mesoamerican civilizations related?
Of these, Teotihuacan, the 2,000-year-old, metropolis that was the first great city of the Western Hemisphere, has long been a mystery. Located 25 miles northeast of the current Mexico City, this ancient civilization left behind the ruins of a master-planned city grid with immense pyramids covering eight square miles and having a unique culture. But even the Aztecs, who gave the city its present name, did not know who built it. They called the monumental ruins "the City of the Gods."
Though Teotihuacan at its height was roughly contemporary with the early stages of the Mayan cities located far to the south in the jungles of southern Mexico and Guatemala, archaeologists have long noted pronounced differences between the cultures and only minor evidence of interaction. Now, startling new evidence from an excavation still in process at Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Moon is revealing a Mayan link with the great city's aristocracy - and may soon be sending reverberations through foundations of Mesoamerican archaeology.
The excavation, directed by Saburo Sugiyama, professor of archaeology at Aichi Prefectural University in Japan and research professor at Arizona State University, and Ruben Cabrera of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, has found a distinctive burial in the pyramid, one of Teotihuacan's oldest and largest structures, containing three ceremonially positioned bodies, other ceremonial items, and jade artifacts that appear to be of Mayan origin.
"The jade objects are especially interesting," said Sugiyama, a leading authority on Teotihuacan, who has been excavating sites in various parts of the city for decades. "We believe that some of them came from Guatemala.
"Some jade objects were carved in Maya style and we know that they were often used as symbol of rulers or royal family members in Maya societies. We have to study the objects and bones further, but the offerings strongly suggest a direct relation between the Teotihuacan ruling group and the Maya royal families."
Among the items is a spectacular jade statuette of a person with relatively realistic features and big eyes. Jade is a rare and precious material in Central America. The nearest and most likely source of the stone is located in the Motagua Valley in Guatemala, which seems to further confirm the objects' Mayan origins.
The burial site is located at the top of the fifth of the pyramid's seven layered stages, and appears to have been created as an offering during the construction of the sixth stage, which is dated circa 350 A.D., near the time of Teotihacan's greatest power and prosperity.
According to Sugiyama, the bodies found in this tomb offer further evidence that the burial is a unique and important find. Since 1998, Sugiyama and his team have excavated several other human burials in the Pyramid of the Moon containing symbolically important animals (such as pumas, coyotes, eagles and serpents), large shells, weapon points and artwork, but the human remains in the earlier discoveries all appeared to be bound captives - offerings dedicating stages of the pyramid. The current discovery is somewhat similar in its ceremonial and symbolic objects, but differs significantly in the positioning of the human remains.
"Unlike the earlier burials we've discovered in the Pyramid of the Moon, these three bodies didn't have their hands tied," Sugiyama noted. "In addition, they were found in a cross-legged seated position, which is very rarely, if ever, found in burials here.
"The position, however, can be seen in images in murals, sculpture or figurines as priests, gods, or warriors in Teotihuacan and other related sites."
Similar body positioning has also been found in burials at Kaminaljuyu, a Mayan site in the Guatemalan highlands. Archaeologists have, in fact, found indications of noble Teotihuacan visitors and of their possible influence on government in the art and records of a number of Mayan cities, including Tikal and Copan. Some evidence has also been found for the presence of Mayan visitors in the common residential and commercial districts of Teotihuacan.
"The archaeological evidence appears to point towards Teotihuacanos intervening in Mayan politics, " said ASU archaeologist George Cowgill, an authority on Teotihuacan. "But many people still dispute that there was really any significant influence because they were two distinctly different cultures.
"Dr. Sugiyama's discovery makes it all more complicated by adding some big new pieces to the puzzle. It certainly makes it harder to see the Mayans as not much influenced by Teotihuacan."
"I think this is significant because for the first time we have data indicating a Mayan ruling class connection at Teotihuacan, from the heart of one of the city's major monuments," said Sugiyama.
"More importantly, these new data tell us about the government Teotihuacan itself, which is one of the biggest questions," he said. "These three people were evidently from the highest socio-political status group."
The three bodies are all male, and are estimated to be approximately 50 years of age at burial. Sugiyama also notes that the bodies were lavishly adorned. "They have the richest ornaments ever found in a burial at Teotihuacan after more than a century of research," Sugiyama said.
"The quality of the offerings is just exceptional. If we had found only one of these bodies, we would suspect that he had been a ruler or at least a royal family member, but we discovered three. This leaves us with critical questions of identification that still need to be resolved," he said. "And there is still a possibility that we may find another grave below the current burial complex and/or at other places inside the Moon Pyramid."
The excavation of the Pyramid of the Moon ended in mid-October because of Sugiyama's teaching commitments in Japan. Sugiyama plans to continue with the digging next August.
Sugiyama and Cabrera's research is sponsored by the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science, the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, Arizona State University, and Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.