Archaeologists: Wealth Disparity Low Between Commoners, Elites In Ancient Teotihuacán

By Jorge Valencia
Published: Thursday, July 25, 2019 - 12:59pm
Updated: Thursday, July 25, 2019 - 2:48pm

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Adrian Aleman Martinez uses a trowel to scrape dirt into a bucket.
Jorge Valencia/KJZZ
Adrian Aleman Martinez, a resident of the Tlajinga district near the center of the ancient city of Teotihuacán, has been working in archeological excavations for 20 years.

Adrian Aleman Martinez, a stocky man from the town of Teotihuacan in central Mexico, has been spending his summer walking from his house down a dirt road and through a brush of cactus plants to dig a hole in the ground.

On a recent day, he knelt on his right knee, gingerly scraped a trowel against the the bottom of the hole, and dumped dirt into a bucket.

“First thing you have to be is calm,” Aleman Martinez said. “You’ll be tempted to grab a pick and a shovel.”

David Carballo, an archeologist at Boston University
Jorge Valencia/KJZZ
David Carballo (center), an archeologist at Boston University, heads the excavation of a public space in the Tlajinga district of Teotihuacán.

Aleman Martinez and his coworkers — almost all of them members of the Aleman family, by blood or marriage — have specialized over the past 20 years in the delicate work of unearthing buried buildings and artifacts from the ancient city of Teotihuacán, the heart of the largest and perhaps most significant known pre-Aztec civilization.

They are not archeologists, but their work is vital in helping scientists decipher how people in this civilization lived from roughly 100 A.D. to about 600 A.D.

In recent years, Aleman Martinez, whose friends call him Cow, has been working with Boston University anthropologist David Carballo. Aleman Martinez and other excavators have helped uncover the former homes and workshops of crafts people who worked with pottery or obsidian volcanic glass, revealing details about every-day life.

“Shoutout to all our guys here,” said Daniela Hernandez Sariñana, a Mexico City native and a doctoral candidate at Boston University. “They know their stuff.”

Recent findings have included luxury items such as murals, helping substantiate conclusions that wealth disparity between commoners and elites in Teotihuacan were among the lowest compared to contemporary ancient civilizations, as well as significantly lower than many societies today.

Daniela Hernandez Sariñana works to preserve artifacts found in an archeological dig in the ancient city of Teotihuacan.
Jorge Valencia/KJZZ
Daniela Hernandez Sariñana (foreground), a Mexico City native and Boston University doctoral candidate, has worked on several excavations in Teotihuacan.

Archaeologists haven’t arrived at a consensus of how to measure wealth in Teotihuacan, according to Michael E. Smith, director of the Arizona State University Teotihuacan Research Laboratory.

But they’ve figured out some things about that most people, whether commoners or elite, lived in large apartments with luxuries like murals and paintings. That suggests a lower wealth disparity than, for example, the Roman Empire, the Aztec Empire a thousand years later, or the United States today.

“It gives the message that such a thing is possible,” Smith said. “You can have a complex urban society without a high level of inequality. That’s the conclusion we get from Teotihuacan.”

The distribution of wealth in Teotihuacan will continue to be studied, Smith said. And Aleman Martinez and Carballo’s team will wrap up their current excavation this summer. Aleman Martinez is already looking forward to continuing next year, he said.

“We’re used to” finding ancient materials, Aleman Martinez said. “But it’s nice people from the outside can come and discover things we didn’t know about.”

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