Spanish may have altered name of Aztec city of Teotihuacan

Experts say conquerors, moving power in Mexico City, sought to remove symbolism as center for rulers


Spanish chroniclers may have altered the name of the pre-Hispanic city of Teotihuacan to erase its importance as a place of governance, Mexican experts said Tuesday.

The Aztecs may have called the city Teohuacan, meaning “the city of the sun.” The name “Teotihuacan” means “the city of the gods” or “the place where men become gods.”

Veronica Ortega, an archaeologist at the National Institute of Anthropology and History, said a lesser-known Aztec document contained a pictogram referring to the city with a combination of signs for sun, temple and ruler.

In the “Xolotol Codex,” which is in France, the word “Teohuacan” is written underneath.

But later codices — Aztec pictographic documents drawn up to inform the Spanish about the land they had conquered — contain the spelling “Teotihuacan.”

Ortega said the Spanish were uncomfortable with “Teohuacan” because the sun was a symbol for rulers and they wanted to concentrate all power in nearby Mexico City, the Aztec capital they conquered in 1521.

“They wanted people to see Teotihuacan as a place of worship but not as a place where rulers were anointed, because they wanted to keep the political center in Tenochtitlan” — the Aztec name for Mexico City, Ortega said.

The debate may seem somewhat academic, because nobody knows what name the inhabitants of the city called it during its apex between 100 B.C. and A.D. 750, when it had about 100,000 residents. The city was abandoned long before the rise of the Aztecs in the 14th century. Both Teotihuacan and Teohuacan are names in the Aztecs’ Nahuatl language, and nobody knows what language the people of Teotihuacan spoke.

While she doesn’t want to change road signs or the official name of the ruins, Ortega said the implications of the name are important because Aztec rulers continued to go to the city to legitimize their rule. She said Montezuma, the last Aztec ruler, “led processions to Teotihuacan every 20 days,” the length of an Aztec calendar month.