The Pyramid of the Sun at the great pre-Columbian sacred site of Teotihuacán in the Valley of Mexico is an awe-inspiring sight.

One of the largest man-made constructions in the Americas—a continent dotted with enormous pre-Columbian pyramids—the Sun Pyramid stands at 489 feet (149 meters) by 551 feet (168 meters) at it base, 148 feet (45 meters) in height.

Its graceful volumetric construction echoes the shape of the mountain behind it, encouraging viewers to perceive the man-made shape as a metaphorical echo of the enormous natural form that dominates the valley.

The Pyramid of the Sun is one of a series of impressive pyramids, temples, and plazas that line the Avenue of the Dead, the main north-south axis of the central precinct of Teotihuacán, one of the largest cities in the world during the first millennium C.E., when it boasted a population of 100,000 to 150,000.

The city began its rise to prominence around 1 C.E.; the pyramid began to be constructed around 150 C.E. and was repeatedly expanded through multiple construction phases. Abandoned rather suddenly after 600, the enormous ruins of this urban center nonetheless continued to influence Mexican life for centuries thereafter.

The conquering Spanish learned of the site from the Aztec ruler Montezuma, who regularly visited there, considering it a holy place. Tourists, both Mexican and international, continue to be moved by its grandeur, and the U.S.-based artist Michael Heizer, son of an archaeologist, has gained international prominence for his abstract earthworks, which echo the majestic form of the pyramid he saw as a child.

The full significance of the Pyramid of the Sun only became clear to archaeologists in the early 1970s.

When a tunnel was accidentally discovered at the foot of the main staircase. This tunnel leads directly toward the center of the pyramid’s base, where six chambers or caves were discovered. Originally believed to be natural springs, these “caves” are now thought to be completely man-made, and to date back to the earliest date of the pyramid’s construction.

In the religions of the ancient Americas, perhaps more so than in the other great religious traditions described here, sacred places loomed especially large in the spiritual imagination.

Widespread traditions of ancestor worship invested the tombs of the dead with great power both as the sources of political and social legitimacy for the living, and as sites imbued with religious sanctity and powerful with the sources of life, fecundity, and health not only for human descendants but for the ecosystem more generally.

Features of the natural landscape, such as springs, caves, and mountain peaks, were likewise invested with great sacral significance and were often
believed to be original places from which the very first ancestors emerged.

In Mesoamerica in particular, the idea of a hidden source of water inside a cave was closely associated with the birth of ancestors and with the control of rainfall, the circulation of water, the origins of time, and the source of life. This complex of ideas was one of the oldest and the most pervasive religious concepts, traceable far back in time, and shared across the many languages and cultural groups of the region.

The six secret caves under the Pyramid of the Sun may make specific reference to the origin myth of ruling lineages, but more importantly, in constructing their largest and most impressive temple-pyramid around a circle of secret caves containing canalized water, the builders of the Pyramid of the Sun tapped into this most primordial of ancient American ideas about sacred space.

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*This article was originally published at science.jrank.org