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Equality Around AD 300 In the Place Where the Aztecs Much Later Came to Occupy In What Is Now Mexico


The following is extracted from The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow


We know now that the city of Teotihuacan had its heyday eight centuries before the coming of the Mexica, and more than 1,000 years before the arrival of the Spanish. Its foundation dates to around 100 BC, and its decline to around AD 600. We also know that, in the course of those centuries, Teotihuacan became a city of such grandeur and sophistication that it could easily be put on a par with Rome at the height of its imperial power. We don’t actually know if Teotihuacan was, like Rome, the centre of a great empire, but even conservative estimates place its population at around 100,000 6 (perhaps as much as five times the likely population of Mohenjo-daro, Uruk or any of the other early Eurasian cities we discussed in the last chapter). At its zenith, there were probably at least a million people distributed across the Valley of Mexico and surrounding lands, many of whom had only visited the great city once, or perhaps only knew someone who had, but nonetheless considered Teotihuacan the most important place in the entire world.


— The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber


The big turnaround in Teotihuacan’s fortunes seems to have begun around AD 300. At that time, or shortly after, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent was desecrated and its stores of offerings looted. Not only was it set on fire; many of the gargoyle-like heads of the Feathered Serpent on its façade were smashed or ground to a stump. A large-stepped platform was then constructed to its west, which made what was left of the temple invisible from its main avenue.


If you visit the heavily reconstructed ruins of Teotihuacan today and wish to see what remains of its goggle-eyed gods and plumed snakeheads you will have to stand on top of this platform, which archaeologists call the adosada. 29 At this point all new pyramid construction stopped permanently, and there is no further evidence of ritually sanctioned killing at the established Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, which remained in use as civic monuments until around AD 550–albeit for other, less lethal purposes about which we know little. 30 Instead, what we see after AD 300 is an extraordinary flow of urban resources into the provision of excellent stone-built housing, not just for the wealthy or privileged but for the great majority of Teotihuacan’s population.


These impressive apartments, laid out in regular plots from one end of the city to the other, were probably not an innovation of this period. Their construction on a city-grid may have begun a century or so earlier, as did the razing of older and more ramshackle dwellings to make way for them. 31 Archaeologists at first considered the masonry apartments to be palaces, and it is possible that is exactly how they began around AD 200, when the city seemed set on a course of political centralization. But after AD 300, when the Temple of the Feathered Serpent was desecrated, their construction continued apace, until most of the city’s 100,000 or so residents were effectively living in ‘palatial’, or at least very comfortable, conditions. 32 So what were these apartments like, and what kind of homes did people make in them?


The evidence suggests we should picture small groups of nuclear families, living comfortable lives in single-storey buildings, each equipped with integral drainage facilities and finely plastered floors and walls. Each family seems to have had its own set of rooms within the larger apartment block, complete with private porticoes where light entered the otherwise windowless rooms. We can deduce that the average apartment compound would have housed in total around 100 people, who would have encountered each other routinely in a central courtyard, which also seems to have been the focus of domestic rituals, perhaps jointly observed. Most of these communal spaces were fitted with altars in the standard style of civic construction (known as talud-tablero), and the walls were often brightly painted with murals. Some courtyards had pyramid-shaped shrines, suggesting this architectural form had taken on new and less exclusive roles within the city. 33


René Millon, the archaeologist responsible for producing the first detailed map of Teotihuacan’s layout, felt that the apartment compound was actually invented as a form of social housing, ‘designed for urban life in a city that was becoming increasingly crowded, perhaps approaching the chaotic’. 34 Each block was initially laid out to similar scale and dimensions, on plots of roughly 3,600 square metres, although some deviated from this ideal scheme. Strict uniformity was avoided in the arrangement of rooms and courtyards, so in the last resort each compound was unique. Even the more modest apartments show signs of a comfortable lifestyle, with access to imported goods and a staple diet of corn tortillas, eggs, turkey and rabbit meat, and the milk-hued drink known as pulque (an alcoholic beverage fermented from the spiky agave plant). 35 In other words, few were deprived. More than that, many citizens enjoyed a standard of living that is rarely achieved across such a wide sector of urban society in any period of urban history, including our own. Teotihuacan had indeed changed its course away from monarchy and aristocracy to become instead a ‘Tollan of the people’.”

But how was this remarkable transformation achieved? Apart from spoilage of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, there are few signs of violence. Land and resources appear to have been allocated to family groups who became neighbours. In this multi-ethnic city, each co-residential group of between sixty and 100 people would have enjoyed two kinds of communal life. One was based on kinship, with family ties extending far beyond the apartment block and often beyond the city–ties which could have troublesome implications, as we’ll shortly see. The other was based more strictly on co-residence in apartments and neighbourhoods, often reinforced by shared craft specializations such as garment-making or obsidian-working. Both forms of urban community, existing alongside one another, retained a human scale, a world away from our modern conception of the ‘housing estate’ in which nuclear families are sequestered by the thousands in multi-storey monoliths.


So we are back to the question with which we started: what held this ‘New Teotihuacan’ together, if not a hereditary elite or some other type of governing class? Without written evidence it may never be possible to reconstruct the details, but by now we can probably rule out any sort of top-down system in which elite cadres of royal administrators or priests drew up plans and sent out orders. A more likely possibility is that authority was distributed among local assemblies, perhaps answerable to a governing council. If any trace of these community associations survives it is in the district shrines known as ‘three-temple complexes’. At least twenty such complexes were dispersed throughout the city, serving a total of 2,000 apartments, one for every 100 apartment blocks. 36


This might imply the delegation of government to neighbourhood councils with constituencies similar in size to those of Mesopotamian city-wards, or the assembly houses of Ukrainian mega-sites we discussed in Chapter Eight, or for that matter the barrios of later Mesoamerican towns. It may seem hard to imagine a city this size running successfully in this way for centuries without strong leaders or an extensive bureaucracy; but as we’ll see, first-hand accounts of later cities from the time of the Spanish conquest lend credence to the idea.”


— The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber

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