Ancient Mexico's Least Livable City

PHILADELPHIA--For centuries, Teotihuacan had bustling markets, powerful kings, magnificent buildings, and the promise of lucrative work to lure the most energetic youth of its time. But by 600 AD, pollution and disease seemed to be taking a deadly toll, killing off young laborers in this ancient Mexican city, a researcher reported here this weekend at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. The urban decay led to the collapse of one of ancient America's crown jewels.

Teotihuacan stood just northeast of where Mexico City is today, with an estimated 125,000 citizens packed into 8 square miles. "Teotihuacan was the first really urban society of the New World," says anthropologist Rebecca Storey of the University of Houston in Texas. Since 1991, she has been studying the city's grimy underbelly, examining the skeletons of 206 ghetto dwellers who worked as stone polishers or potters.

In typical preindustrial cities, such as London and Amsterdam, most deaths occur in children or in adults older than 45. That's what Storey found in the early days of Teotihuacan as well, around 200 AD. But within 400 years, the number of skeletons belonging to teenagers and young adults increased by as much as 35%. Their teeth and bones showed signs of stress and disease, such as poor nutrition and infections. "Having so many deaths in this part of the population is a sign of trouble," she says.

The culprits were pollution and poor sanitation, she suspects. With no sewer system, citizens depended on seasonal rains to flush garbage away, but it would have piled up and rotted during the dry summer, Storey says. The stink, crowding, and disease probably fouled the capital. "It wasn't a dynamic, attractive place," Storey imagines. "It didn't pull new people in." Indeed, the potters and stone polishers abandoned their compound by 600 AD: Tools, trash, bones, and other signs of human occupation vanish in dirt layers more recent than that date. The rest of Teotihuacan's populace apparently followed soon after--probably lured by the glitter of newer metropolises such as Tula--and within 50 years the entire city had become a ghost town.

The findings provide a new glimpse into New World city life, experts say. "We tend to think of these cities as romantic 'Shining Stars' that attracted people from all over," says Deborah Nichols of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "The importance of Storey's work is that it shows they could also be black holes, sucking people in and destroying them."