Today, we wonder if intelligent life exists somewhere else in the universe. It is probably the most important inquiry of our age. Five hundred years ago, the isolated peoples of central Mexico must have asked that same question. Until then, they had developed their own advanced societies in a parallel universe, disconnected from the rest of the civilized world.
To try to grasp this alternative reality, I paid a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, considered the world’s finest anthropology museum. After six hours, I failed to wrap my head around the complex and diverse history of ancient Mexico. I realized that I needed to do some field work to learn more.
To start, I took a city bus about 10 miles (16 km) south of downtown Mexico City. There, amidst the traffic and urban sprawl are the remains of Cuicuilco, the oldest known civilization in central Mexico. While the ancient Greeks were constructing the Pantheon, the people of Cuicuilco were assembling the oldest pyramid structure in the New World.
Around the time of Christ, the nearby Xitle volcano erupted burying Cuicuilco under a 20-foot (6 m) thick layer of lava. Poking out of the volcanic rock, only the pyramid and a few other structures were spared entombment. As the lava slowly encroached upon their city, the people of Cuicuilco fled north to join the emerging megacity of Teotihuacan.
Teotihuacan, located 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Mexico City, is one of the most important archeological sites in the New World. As the Romans were building their famous Colosseum in Rome, the people of Teotihuacan were autonomously constructing their own great city, and expanding their population to 250,000 citizens.
From the top of the mighty Pyramid of the Sun, we marveled at the massive scale of the well-preserved city. Although completely cut off from the Old World, the pyramids of Teotihuacan appear eerily similar in size and design to the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
With the eventual downfall of the Teotihuacan civilization, it was the Toltecs who formed the next great society in central Mexico. While the Muslim Empire was completing the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Toltecs were independently creating their own powerful civilization at Tula, about 50 miles (80 km) north of Mexico City.
From Tula, a militaristic population of 60,000 Toltecs ruled central Mexico for nearly four centuries. I came to see the legendary site, and its famous Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl topped by four 15-foot (4.5 m) tall warrior sculptures. Standing beside the carved basalt Toltec troopers, I could survey the entire sophisticated and well-organized ancient city.
After the Toltec Empire finally collapsed, the Aztecs established the greatest of all ancient civilizations in central Mexico. While the Europeans were building the gothic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Aztecs were concurrently erecting their own great religious ceremonial center Templo Mayor, in the heart of present-day Mexico City.
For the final stop in my quest to comprehend the parallel universe of ancient Mexico, I walked just 2 miles (3 km) from Templo Mayor to the Aztec commercial center of Tlatelolco, now a complex of apartment towers. Here, 40,000 Aztecs fought to the death in their last stand against Hernán Cortés, the Spanish, and the demise of the last great civilization of central Mexico.
By then, the peoples of the Old World and the New World had simultaneously discovered that life did indeed exist elsewhere in their universe. I still wonder when we will come face-to-face with another civilization, and no longer be isolated within our own universe of intelligent life.
Featured Photo: Aztec Rack of Human Skulls, Templo Mayor, Mexico City