Published: October 2006
Pyramid of Death
At the Pyramid of the Moon in central Mexico, humans and animals were buried alive. Excavations reveal the remains of sacrifices once witnessed by thousands of spectators.
By A. R. Williams

Even the ferocious Aztec were awed by their first glimpse of Teotihuacan. By the 13th century when the Aztec swept into central Mexico, the once teeming city—which reached its zenith around a.d. 400—had been long since abandoned by its mysterious builders. Its grand ceremonial center, where tens of thousands of people had gathered amid sacred monuments of stone, lay under thick green overgrowth. The Aztec gave the site its name and identified its most imposing features according to their own beliefs—the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. Assuming that some of the buildings were tombs, they called the main thoroughfare Street of the Dead.

They were, as it turns out, uncannily accurate. Burials both rich and gruesome have recently been discovered in the Pyramid of the Moon during excavations headed by Rubén Cabrera Castro, of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, and Saburo Sugiyama, of Japan’s Aichi Prefectural University. Tunneling deep into the 140-foot-tall stone structure, the archaeologists located five burial sites. After most of the dirt and debris had been dug out, each site was reinforced with steel beams for safety. Supplied with fresh air pumped in from the outside, the archaeologists scraped the last layers of earth from the floor to reveal scenes of carnage: disembodied heads and the remains of foreign warriors and dignitaries, carnivorous mammals, birds of prey, and deadly reptiles.

Evidence indicates that all the victims were ritually killed to consecrate successive stages of the pyramid’s construction (illustration below). The earliest sacrifice, from about a.d. 200, marked a substantial enlargement of the building. A wounded foreigner, most likely a prisoner of war, was apparently buried alive with his hands tied behind him (opposite). Animals representing mythical powers and military might surrounded him—pumas, a wolf, eagles, a falcon, an owl, and rattlesnakes—some buried alive in cages. Finely crafted offerings included weapons of obsidian and a figurine of solid greenstone, perhaps a war goddess to whom the burial was dedicated. Each subsequent burial was different, but all had the same aim: “Human sacrifice was important to control the people,” says Sugiyama, “to convince them to do what their rulers wanted.”

Teotihuacan was one of the first true urban centers in the Western Hemisphere, covering nearly eight square miles at its heyday. Precious artifacts recovered from the Pyramid of the Moon and other structures reveal that this was a wealthy trade metropolis with far-reaching connections. Inexplicably, the city suffered sudden and violent collapse in about a.d. 600 and much of the population fled. They left few written records, just the ruins of their city and intriguing clues about a once powerful culture.