Was Teotihuacan a work of art?

Was Teotihuacan a work of art? Certainly, in one of the largest urban centers of ancient Mesoamerica craftsmanship and art – most notably mural paintings – burgeoned. Today the monumental architectural structures of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon towering along the Street of the Dead in an almost perfect geometrical alignment leave the visitors of the ancient metropolis astonished. What was the power capable of such a monumental urban design? Was the city itself one monumental work of art?

The origins of this metropolis of the Valley of Mexico reach to about 100 AD and its hiatus is estimated to start around 550AD, the population of the metropolis reached around 150,000 people at its peak but when the Aztecs found the city, it was a metropolis of ghosts. For some reason, the Teotihuacan culture had almost disappeared before the Aztecs came. What kind of social organization can explain the rise and fall of one of the greatest and oldest urban structures?

Many archeologists believe that Teotihuacan was centrally controlled by powerful rulers and military elites and the existence of an early centralized government is often supported arguing that migration into the city was a result of deliberate policy enforced by coercion for the political advantage of keeping most of the Valley of Mexico’s population under direct control of the city. Furthermore, the monumental pyramids seem to provide evidence for the immense power of Teotihuacan rulers to call up labor; the alignment of the city quarters around 15° of true north seems to further suggest a high degree of planning implying a centralized control over the design of the city. How can this magnificent urban design not be a work of someone’s vision? How can Teotihuacan not be a work of art?

The facts may be highly suggestive of an anthropomorphic scenario explaining the organization of Teotihuacan. But even after decades of concerted archaeological search any direct evidence of strong centralized Teotihuacan government remains elusive. There are actually findings which seem to contradict the central design thesis.

Consider this: in Teotihuacan not a single piece of art depicting the subjugation of one person by another has been found and evidence of notation is so sparse that it was long thought that writing was absent altogether. This is especially puzzling in the context of the Maya, Zapotec, and other cultures which employed their writing systems to exhibit and glorify the exploits of their royal lineages. The relative absence of such writing in Teotihuacan is indicative of the relative absence of such lineage royalty.

This is not the end of the confusion; the Aztec records of the city’s origins explicitly speak of several old and wise leaders of the new settlers being installed as rulers. Not one powerful emperor but several leaders. The city’s population also seems to have been ethnically quite diverse; it might have included several foreign enclaves and it does not seem that the migration was coerced. It is in fact quite plausible that the influx of migrants from neighboring regions of the Valley of Mexico is a result of the Popocatepetl and Chichinautzin volcano eruptions. Was the Teotihuacan order polycentric, rather than centralized? If so, what made the diverse peoples of Teotihuacan stay together?

Mexico City’s UNAM researchers suggest that the origin of the metropolis results from a coming together of several disparate groups which would have facilitated the creation of a governing coalition rather than from a coercive central plan.  Teotihuacan seems to have emerged as a voluntary alliance between around twenty social units, possibly related clans, or ethnic groups who were interested in trade and ritual rather than in empire building. This complex social system was most likely successfully managed collectively in a self-organized manner, involving neither powerful leaders nor an extensive bureaucratic apparatus and the globally optimal coordination mechanisms of Teotihuacan seem to have emerged spontaneously through agents’ actions and interactions even though each agent was behaving selfishly and even though no agent had the knowledge about the structure of the overall problem space. Froese, Gershenson and Manzanilla provide a genuinely system-level explanation of collective government thus attacking a tradition in which has strong roots both in archaeology and in social sciences, a tradition that necessarily equates social complexity with centralized hierarchy.

Collective action governing common spaces neither by a market nor by hierarchical mechanisms poses some genuine challenges as the tragedy of the commons story would suggest. But simulating the emergent urban organization of Teotihuacan which remained adaptive for around five centuries clearly shows that spontaneous cooperation is feasible even without centralized hierarchical control. How were the problems of collective action overcome in the metropolis of Teotihuacan?

Rather then centralized coercive bureaucratic aparatus, it was the system of shared beliefs that served as a coordination device for the heterogenous population of Teotihuacan. For example, the canonical orientation of Teotihuacan was originally a result of the cosmological observations made with the Pyramid of the Sun, while other principal constructions followed the Pyramid’s alignments to ensure the maximal use of available space in a crowded city. If people of Teotihuacan considered their city to be a sacred cosmogram and the center of the universe, it is unlikely that coercion was needed to convince immigrants to construct their compounds so as to share in this cosmic power.  But such a symbolic behavior largely consists of arbitrary customs. How could the Teotihuacan population make sure that these customs would provide coordination guidelines that were adaptive? How could the system quickly converge to an optimum and, more importantly, how could the system visit different optima so as to avoid adaptively suboptimal attractors?

The suggested answer lies in behavioral randomization. The ritual calendar of Teotihuacan included infrequent, large-scale events during which normal social activity and norms were suspended. These rituals had more than an ornamental function. These rituals would infrequently disturb the common routines thus helping, by way of randomization and re-convergence, to occasionally introduce arbitrary behavioral choices and allow the population to re-converge to an equilibrium preventing an institutional lock-in on equilibria that were not adaptive. Froese and his colleagues refer to this strong form of self-organization as self-optimization. Consequently, if the pyramids mainly served a ritual function for the community, it would be better to think of them as large-scale public goods on a continuum with the constructions of large-scale housing for most of the population rather than conspicuous manifestation of power.

Is there anything we can learn today from the emergent self-organization of Teotihuacan? I certainly think so. Perhaps the history of this ancient metropolis is a chapter in a story told by Jane Jacobs. Perhaps it is the case that

to approach a city, or even a city neighborhood, as if it were a larger architectural problem, capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art, is to make the mistake of attempting to substitute art for life.

Perhaps the power that shaped the metropolis of Teotihuacan was not a power of an enlightened sometimes benevolent and sometimes cruel emperor. On the contrary, it is quite likely that the power which made the Teotihuacan population adaptive for five centuries was an emergent capacity of social groups to self-organize.