The Archaeology of Immigration in Ancient Teotihuacan

When we think about ancient civilizations, it can be easy to think of them as being homogenous. However, migration has always been present in human history, and evidence of the transfer of ideas and people between settlements is often found. Still, evidence does not stand on its own and it must be supported by its context. Migration especially can only be theorized upon when the artifacts, ecofacts, and features of sites are considered as a whole. For example, the ethnic composition of Teotihuacan has been analyzed by taking all of these site features, understanding their relationship to each other, and comparing these findings to other sites in the Mesoamerican region.

Figure 1. Layout of Teotihuacan, including the locations of the Oaxaca Barrio, Michoacán Enclave, and Merchants’ Barrio.

While studying the ruins of Teotihuacan, archaeologists found evidence suggesting the presence of communities of various ethnic “groups, [including] the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, who lived in their own barrio [community] on the southwestern fringe of the city; the Gulf Coast merchants, who dwelled in the Merchants’ Barrio on the east side of the city; and people of the West Mexican Michoacán enclave, who lived on the western limits of the settlement” (Manzanilla 2002:59). Studying the infrastructure of these communities in themselves would seemingly only reveal differing architectural practices. But when we consider the mentioned ecofacts and artifacts within these compounds separately, along with features that are not part of the infrastructure, we can understand ritual, social, and culinary practices in themselves. Finally, when these practices are viewed in association with each other, we find that even a few small pieces of the city can actually reveal its multiethnic composition and ties to the rest of Mesoamerica. We can see that the context of excavations matter. For example, square burial tombs that had only been found in sites in the state of Veracruz were found in some barrios of Teotihuacan. Apartment compounds, especially within the Merchants’ Barrio but also in all the ethnic enclaves mentioned in Figure 1, included goods from other regions, such as distinct shells or pottery. Immigrants in the Oaxaca barrio apartment complexes, identified using strontium isotope ratios, retained what are now known as Western Mexican burial practices, but also adapted to Mexica culinary practices. This is especially interesting to note, for although some people assimilated to Mexica culture, they still retained the practices that made their identities clear. Because these discoveries deal with the differences between each barrio and with similarities to other sites, it is clear that the understanding of immigration in Teotihuacan was only furthered because the site as a whole was considered.

Figure 2. Zapotec urn found in Teotihuacan’s Barrio Zapotec, also known as Tlailotlacan.

Civilizations have always been connected, and in some ways very intertwined, something we cannot ignore in the present day. It is no surprise that Teotihuacan would attract people from other areas of Mesoamerica- not as people who were conquered, but as people who were attracted to the power and almost mythical status of the city. It parallels the reasons why some groups migrate to certain regions today, reminding us that, in a way, that we are not always so different from our ancestors.




Manzanilla, Linda, “Corporate Life in Apartment and Barrio Compounds at Teotihuacan,

Central Mexico: Craft Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity,” Memoirs of the Museum of

Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, vol. 49, 2009, pgs. 21-38, Web,



Manzanilla, Linda, “Houses and Ancestors, Altars and Relics: Mortuary Patterns at Teotihuacan,

Central Mexico” Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological

Association, vol.11, no.1, 2002 pgs.55–65, Web,


Manzanilla, Linda, “Social Identity and Daily Life at Classic Teotihuacan,” Mesoamerican

Archaeology Theory and Practice, Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pgs. 124-147, Web,



Storey, Rebecca, “Teotihuacan and the Demography of Preindustrial Cities; The Tlajinga 33

Apartment Compound,” Life and Death in the Ancient City of Teotihuacan: A Modern

Paleodemographic Synthesis, The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa and London,

1992, pgs.  27-70, Print.


 Image Sources 

Figure 1.

Manzanilla, Linda, “Corporate Life in Apartment and Barrio Compounds at Teotihuacan, Central

Mexico: Craft Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity,” Memoirs of the Museum of

Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, vol.46, 2009, pgs.21-38, Web,



Figure 2.

Cabrera, Veronica Ortega. “Zapotec Urn in Teotihuacan.” Museo Nacional De

Anthropología,National Museum of Anthropology, Web,


Further Reading

 Link to Post by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History Discussing Foreigners in Teotihuacan, Which Can Be Translated to English.

“Teotihuacan Hosted 1,300 Foreigners.” Instituto Nacional De Antropología e Historia,

National Institute of Anthropology and History, 28 August 2013, Web,


Link to Mentioned Study of Strontium Isotope Ratios in Bones of Individuals in Teotihuacan’s Foreign Barrios

Price, Douglas T., Manzanilla, Linda, Middleton, William D., “Immigration and the Ancient City

of Teotihuacan in Mexico: A Study Using Strontium Isotope Ratios in Human Bone and

Teeth,” Journal of Archaeological Science, vol.27, no.10, 2000, pgs. 903-913, Web,




2 thoughts on “The Archaeology of Immigration in Ancient Teotihuacan

  1. What brought people to Teotihuacan, was there anything going on around the city that brought individuals to settle there? You mentioned that there was both distinct artifacts and ecofacts that helped fortify the idea that their were different ethnic groups with in the the inner city, what are these artifact/ecofacts? What are some characteristics of western Mexican burial practices?

  2. Teotihuacan’s influence was far reaching. Iconography originating from the city, although usually altered, has been found in various Western Mexican contexts. For example, typical Teotihuacan water iconography has even been discovered in northern Yucatan (Sanders et. al 5). It is possible that the economic strength and ideological power of Teotihuacan was enticing enough for others to seek out the city. Merchants from foreign places also ended up staying in the city.
    As for ecofacts and artifacts the indicate the presence of foreigners in the city, comestibles related to foreign diets and figures containing foreign imagery(different Mesoamerican cultures had different deities) perhaps present the strongest arguments. Isotope analysis of teeth in residential compounds indicate that different groups of people consumed maize in different quantities, which was usually either determined by economic or foreign status, although the two usually weren’t mutually exclusive (White 21).
    Additionally, shaft tombs containing obsidian, shells, and hollow ceramic figures-such as the well-known “Colima dogs” are typical in Western Mexican burials(Taylor 165). The presence of similar burials in Teotihuacan residential compounds, such as in Tlajinga 33, most likely further indicates foreign presence.

    Sanders, William T., and David Webster. “The Mesoamerican Urban Tradition.” American Anthropologist, vol. 90, no. 3, 1988, pp. 521–546. JSTOR, JSTOR,

    Taylor, R. E. “The Shaft Tombs of Western Mexico: Problems in the Interpretation of Religious Function in Nonhistoric Archaeological Contexts.” American Antiquity, vol. 35, no. 2, 1970, pp. 160–169. JSTOR, JSTOR,

    White, Christine D., et al. “Immigration, Assimilation, and Status in the Ancient City of Teotihuacan: Stable Isotopic Evidence from Tlajinga 33.” Latin American Antiquity, vol. 15, no. 2, 2004, pp. 176–198. JSTOR, JSTOR,

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