Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Lost Pyramids of Mexico

San Cristobal Teopantepec

The accounts of the early European exploration of Mexico, during the 18th and 19th century, are replete with descriptions of ancient pyramids, lost cities and mysterious monuments that have since disappeared or become lost.

The pyramid of Teopantepec deserves a special spot in this list of apparently vanished monuments. For its unusual style, it would very well deserve a place in the history of architecture, and it is a tragedy that so little is known of the location and ultimate fate of this remarkable monument.

In a famous drawing from Dupaix (Antiquités Mexicaines, 1807, p.4, Plate 3), the pyramid is shown as still standing to a height of 67 feet in four receding stories. The structure was precisely oriented to the four cardinal points and was apparently of massive construction (“obra muy masiza”), entirely lined with large cut-stone blocks, as shown in the drawing. Dupaix describes this pyramid as being of “Egyptian style”, although the presence of an outside stairway leading diagonally from bottom to top of each level rather suggests a parallel with a Mesopotamian ziqqurat.  

Little information is given on the location of this remarkable monument:
  • The name of the village in the vicinity of which the pyramid was found is given as San Cristobal Teopantepec. No village or town of this name exists today. Dupaix calls it a “small Indian village
  • Although the village of Teopantepec no longer exists, it is mentioned in old conquest manuscripts. The corresponding glyph is given as a stepped pyramid on top of a mountain
  • Dupaix mentions it as being located 4 leagues to the South of the town of Tlacotepec. Assuming the Spanish league of 4,180 meters was used, the pyramid would be found 16 Km to the South of Tlacotepec (present Tlacotepec de Benito Juarez, PUE)
  • Hubert H. Bancroft (The Native Races, Vol. IV, Antiquities, 1883, pp. 466-467) describes the same pyramid as being located somewhere in the vicinity of Tehuacan Viejo, near a little native settlement by the name of San Cristóval Teopantepec, North-Westward of Tehuacan
  • From the description of Dupaix and Castañeda, we learn that the pyramid stood on high ground (“on the summit of an isolated eminence, surrounded by steeper mountains to the West of the village”), and was approached by a trail cut in the living rock of the mountain
  • The base of the pyramid stood on a smooth cement pavement, which had been artificially levelled, where other nondescript ruins were visible.
The modern search

The descriptions given by Dupaix, Castañeda and Bancroft all correspond in terms of the general area, being in the South-Eastern portion of the state of Puebla. The town of Tlacotepec is indeed located 30 Km to the North-West of Tehuacan.
Although no village by the name of San Cristobal Teopantepec exists in the area, two villages by the name of San Cristobal Tepeteopan and San Bartolo Teontepec are found approx. 16 Km to the South-West of Tlacotepec, at a place that would match Dupaix and Castañeda´s location. It is very well possible that the French explorer had got the names of these towns confused and somehow merged them to form the non-existing San Cristobal Teopantepec.  

This approximate location would be on an ideal line with another ruined pyramid located in the vicinity of Tehuacan Viejo which seems to match the description of the pyramid of Teopantepec. It is similarly located on the top of a mountain, surrounded by precipitous cliffs, and its construction appears to be of stone. No pictures of this pyramid are available, but its location on Cerro Colorado (18°28'58.4"N 97°19'58.9"W) is known to locals as “Ciudad Perdida” – The Lost City.

There is no doubt that if a pyramid like the one portrayed by Dupaix still existed, much more would be known about it. Even as a ruin, however, the discovery of the site of such an unusual monument could help to write an important page in our knowledge of the mysterious past of Mexico and its ancient civilizations.
Over the next few weeks, we are planning an expedition to finally locate the lost pyramid of Teopantepec.