New finds

New find casts doubt on Mexico past

"A new discovery at the pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico are revealing a pre-Hispanic past that was probably less egalitarian and less peace-loving than some scholars believed.

Recent archaeological digs have turned up the first evidence of a ruling elite and provided more evidence of mass human sacrifices at Teotihuacan, a vast complex of pyramids outside Mexico City that was a thriving metropolis of 150,000 at the time of Christ.

Previous scholars had surmised that the mysterious Indian residents of Teotihuacan - who abandoned the city hundreds of years before it was discovered by the Aztecs - belonged to an egalitarian-minded, nature-worshipping culture unlike any other in the pre-Hispanic world.

As opposed to other ruins where every pyramid and painting is a canvas to extol the military victories and virtues of kings and governors, Teotihuacan's red-hued murals are dappled with what look like commoners cavorting amid flowers, butterflies, coyotes and jaguars.

The site has puzzled scholars for more than a century, because unlike any other ancient society of the Americas, it offered no hint - in mural paintings, carvings or stonework - of who ruled it.

'It is sort of a mystery. Why didn't they depict rulers?' archaeologist Ruben Cabrera said.

Cabrera and colleague Saburo Sugiyama think they may be close to solving that mystery. The two were involved in the September discovery of three skeletons buried with elaborate ornaments near the peak of Teotihuacan's massive Pyramid of the Moon.

Sugiyama said the three skeletons appear to be those of aristocrats and the body of a king may lie concealed nearby in the 60-foot shaft researchers excavated into the pyramid.

'There was clearly inequality and hierarchy', Cabrera said.

Earlier this year, a similar discovery cast doubts on previously held notions of another pre-Hispanic culture, the Mayas.

Hieroglyphics found on stone stairs of an ancient Maya pyramid in Guatemala suggest that a people once considered to be a peaceful society of astronomers fought the equivalent of a war of annihilation.

Hundreds of sacrifice victims have been discovered in recent years at Teotihuacan and other sites, leading archaeologists to reject suspicions that the Spaniards vastly exaggerated accounts of mass sacrifices by the Indians.

But Sugiyama's interpretation of the recent find at Teotihuacan - that the remains are those of aristocrats - doesn't sit well with some who think the complex was an exception to the ruler-oriented pre-Hispanic world.

'The art of Teotihuacan refrains from glorifying rulers because its people wished to create the image of an integrated community instead', wrote Esther Pasztory, specialist in pre-Hispanic art at Columbia University, in her 1997 book 'Teotihuacan, An Experiment In Living'.

'Their art glorifies nature and the supernatural, and emphasizes egalitarian rather than aristocratic values', she wrote.

Pasztory told The Associated Press she thinks archaeologists are trying to force Teotihuacan into a single-ruler mold that is more comfortable for them.

'They were looking for some absolute leader', she said in a telephone interview. 'The model is something like ancient Egypt, but Teotihuacan is not Egypt. It's a very special place'.

But the remains discovered in September, dating from about A.D. 300, appear to belong to a ruling class. They were buried with jade ear ornaments, carved shells and other offerings, traditional symbols of power and status in pre-Hispanic America.

More important, the skeletons did not have their hands tied like previous ones discovered at Teotihuacan, meaning they were not sacrificial victims.

Sugiyama said there may have been depictions of the city's rulers all along at Teotihuacan just not in a form archaeologists have recognized.

The artifacts found with the skeletons - jade ornaments, collars, shells and lozenge-shaped badges - were symbols of authority, and they do show up in Teotihuacan's murals.

Sugiyama said those may have replaced inscriptions because of the city's recently discovered cosmopolitan nature. In recent years, remains of Pacific-coast Zapotecs and Mayas from the southern Yucatan peninsula have been found at Teotihuacan.

'In a cosmopolitan city, an 'international' one for its day, one language isn't going to be understood by everyone, so symbolic images are easier to understand', Sugiyama said. 'This could give us a new way to read the murals'.

But there are still enough mysteries surrounding Teotihuacan to fuel decades of research.

At its height between 100 B.C. and A.D. 750, the city had 2,600 structures, and the first pyramid to Quetzalcoatl, a white-skinned god who came from the east bearing technological innovations and who preached a faith based on love. He was later adopted as a god by the Aztecs.

Some believe the god is based on an early Viking visitor to the New World, and others believe his worship helped Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes vanquish Mexico City, because the rulers believed him to be an incarnation of Quetzalcoatl."

December 2002

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Mark Stevenson, AP

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