STYLISH suburbs : How ancient Mexican metropolis dodged inequality trap. Archaeologist has discovered brightly-coloured paintings over fine stucco on three buildings he began excavating in July.

TEOTIHUACAN : Fragments of pre-Aztec murals recently unearthed on the outskirts of what was once the largest city of the Americas are adding to mounting evidence that even commoners there enjoyed the finer things in life.

Each year, millions of tourists visit the towering pyramids and temples of the sprawling metropolis of Teotihuacan, far from the latest discoveries on the city's southern edge.

''We're now finding that life on the periphery was pretty good,'' said Boston University archaeologist David Carballo, who discovered brightly-coloured paintings over fine stucco on three buildings he began excavating there in July.

Decorated with flowers and birds that appear to be singing, the murals evoking a paradise found nearly three kilometers from Teotihuacan's core came as a complete surprise, he said.

Mr. Carballo and his team have also found other signs of wealth nearby, including a jade, a finely curved stone mask, and shell's from Mexico's Pacific and Gulf coasts.

The unpublished mural discoveries point to the the radically different path charted by Teotihuacan, which thrived back from about 100 BC to 550 AD, compared to other ancient civilizations.

At a time when daily life in the biggest contemporary Mayan cities, or ancient Rome and Egypt, was marked by a tiny elite lording over impoverished or enslaved masses, most of Teotihuacan's estimated 100,000 inhabitants fared far better.

Archaeologists posit that a thriving craft based economy populated by lapidaries, potters, garment makers and especially obsidian workshop that likely produced an estimated 200,000 blades during its lifespan.

In the city's La Ventilla district another aspect of Teotihuacan egalitarian character comes comes into view : stone, multi-family apartment compounds where over 96 percent of Teotihuacan lived.

Off limited to tourists despite extremely rare glyphs painted on a plaza, the narrow streets of of La Ventilla's residential compounds suggest a densely packed urban existence.

The compounds boast white lime-plaster floors, built-in drainage systems, open-air courtyards and murals.

Lying 48 km northeast of Mexico City Teotihuacan has more than 2,000 such compounds, thanks to a century-long building boom that ended around 350 AD.

According to Ruben Cabrera, a veteran archaeologist who pioneered excavation of La Ventilla, Teotihuacan's mass housing is unprecedented an antiquity, pointing to lower inequality.

''It wasn't pronounced as, say, Rome or other places where there was a dominant group and a dominated group,'' he said.
No evidence of slavery has been found there in more than a century of excavations, he noted.

City of Migrants : Arizona State University archaeologist Michael Smith, who leads a research lab at Teotihuacan, previously calculated a measure of wealth for the city based on its house sizes.

On a scale where 1.0 means one household owns everything and zero indicates total equality, Teotihuacan's so-called Gini came in at 0.12, which Smith described as a stunningly low level of inequality for a pre-industrial society.

''My first reaction was : ''This is a mistake,'' he said.

Mr. Smith, the author of the book : ''Ten Thousand Years of Inequality,'' plans to recalculate the score using a larger data set. While expecting it to rise somewhat, he says it probably will still be far lower than scores for Roman Pompeii or Egyptian Kahun.

Mr. Smith also draws comparisons to digs at Aztec sites founded more than a millennium after Teotihuacan's collapse.

The average Teotihuacan household had around 200 square meters [2, 153 square feet] of living space, roughly the size of a tennis court, while typical Aztec dwellings measured about 25 square meters.

Burial data compiled by Mr. Carballo shows that Teotihuacan's commoners grew to a height similar to elites, with males buried in apartment compounds less than 1 centimeter shorter than than most interred near the city's central Moon Pyramid.

By contrast, commoners were over 6 cm shorter shorter than royals in Mycenae, Greece, and 9 cm shorter in dynastic Egypt, the data showed.

Linda Manzanilla, an archaeologist at Mexico's national Autonomous University, says the multi-ethnic migrant communities that settled Teotihuacan after two major volcanic eruptions likely needed more communal governance and access to resources.

She first excavated an apartment compound in the mid-1980s on the northeastern fringe where stucco workers lived and had access to luxury goods including mica and fine ceramics.

Teotihuacan's history offers an intriguing counter point to modern tensions often stoked by migration. [Reuters]


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