Pyramids Schmeramids: Why the Pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica
Do Not Share a Common Source


Chris Loethen



Separated by the Atlantic Ocean and two thousand years, the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico call out to the imagination. They offer glimpses into romantically esoteric societies filled with secret rituals and exacting construction that even today cause us to ogle over them like voyeurs. So the question is not whether they still move us today, obviously they do. Rather, the question is whether they moved each other, or failing that, did they dip their buckets into some common well of knowledge like that of Atlantis? Of course there are seeming similarities between the artifacts and architecture of these geographically and temporally distant societies. The jade death mask of Pacal could easily be compared to that of Tut. Likewise, the half-animal, half-human gods of Egypt are similar, at their most basic level, to Mesoamerican gods like Quetzacoatl. And who can ignore the pyramids?

Unfortunately, despite these apparent similarities, they are unrelated to one another. Not only were the Mesoamerican pyramids built millennia after the those of Egypt, they also did not share the same basic design or function. While the Egyptian pyramids were private tombs meant to set the pharaoh off from the mainstream society of the day and protect him for eternity, the pyramids of Mesoamerica, though sometimes used as tombs, were primarily public temples of ritual and celebration.

Date of Construction

Perhaps the most damning argument against hyper-diffusionist theories involving the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico is that even if one allows for the transportation of knowledge via transatlantic contact of some undefined sort, it would still not explain the time lag between their dates of construction, a time lag of not centuries but of millennia.

How many people learned the Gettysburg address by heart in junior high only to have it fade from their memory by high school? Or how many people have heard a joke on Monday morning only to have forgotten it by Tuesday afternoon? The idea is simple: if you don’t use it, you lose it. With pyramid construction, it is the same way.

So when were the pyramids of Egypt built? Though there is always division regarding exact dates when dealing with archaeological sites, all legitimate archaeologists agree that pyramid construction in Egypt began and ended almost exclusively with the Old Kingdom, which, using liberal dates, puts the construction of the Egyptian pyramids sometime between 2700 to 2100 bc. However, Egyptologists have further narrowed this time period by the use of stelae and assigned a general date of 2450 B.C. for the construction of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. With the others of Giza constructed in the successive reigns of Kephren and Menkaure:

Near the pyramids of Cheops stand two more pyramids, one, slightly
smaller, attributed to Cheops’ successor, Kephren, and another,
smaller still, partly sheathed in red granite, attributed to Kephren’s
successor, Mykerinos. Together with six diminutive pyramids built
for Cheops’ wives and daughters, they form what is known as the
Giza complex (Tompkins, 1).

This is not to say that these were the earliest pyramids the ancient Egyptians built. Pyramid construction was a process developed over at least a few centuries as evidenced by the monuments at Dashur and Saqqara. Rather it is meant to set the pyramids of Giza

into a historical context that will allow dating. Since given that these pyramids were constructed by Cheops, Kephren, and Mykerinos, the first of which was Cheops, they are able to be dated by historical accounts from the classical historian Herodotus who saw the Great Pyramid in 440 bc. His History contains the first comprehensive account of Egypt to have survived intact, and he attributes the Great Pyramid to Cheops. This, when combined with the presence of Cheops’ cartouche on the some of the inner chambers of the Pyramid, places him as the pyramid’s builder:

The most interesting discovery...was some red-paint cartouches
daubed on the inner wall of the upper chambers [of the Great
Pyramid]. Thanks to the Rosetta of these cartouches
was recognized by Egyptologists as belonging to Khufu, believed
to be the second Pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty, called Cheops by
the Greeks, whose reign was thought to have occurred in the
third millenium before our era (Tompkins, 17).

The first pyramids of Mesoamerica were not constructed until the sometime between approximately 100 B.C. and 300 A.D: "All this coalesced by about A.D. 300 into what is called the Classic Maya civilization, with spectacular sites such as Palenque, Tikal, and Uaxactun and their temples, pyramids, and palaces" (Sabloff, 1994).

If these pyramids shared a common source, like that of Atlantis, one would think that they would be contemporaneous. It would be only logical that the refugees from any Atlantean cataclysm would arrive at their respective locales at approximately the same time, and once there, they would begin construction of their monuments. However, that is not what happened. The pyramids of Mexico and Egypt are separated by at least 2,000 years.

A diffusionist might dispute the argument of non-contemporaneity by arguing that the societies of Mexico were visited by Egyptians at some later date and were instructed in the art of pyramid building. This argument also fails to hold water, because the Egyptians almost completely stopped building pyramids at the end of the fourth dynasty (ca. 2100 B.C.). The scattered few pyramids dated after then are of exceedingly inferior quality, and therefore demonstrate that even only a few hundred years after the construction of Cheops’ pyramid the Egyptians had already lost the technical know-how necessary:

[Pyramids after the Fourth Dynasty] were rather poorly constructed,
and the workmanship of the inner core, which has mostly collapsed, is
very much shoddier than that of their illustrious predecessors of the
Fourth Dynasty. All the Fifth Dynasty pyramids are now mere heaps of
rubble, some more like mounds than pyramids (Bauval and Gilbert, 48).

Manner of Construction

One of the largest differences between the Egyptian and Mesoamerican pyramids is the Egyptians use of only cut stone as both building material and decoration, which they quarried from sources, some of which were hundred of miles away, along the Nile. Though the degree to which the stones were polished or "finished" varied depending upon their location within the structure--stones being more finished varied directly with their proximity to the exterior surface of the pyramid--they were all finished to some degree:

The pyramid itself had three main parts. The innermost section was
the step-like central core. Only the facing blocks of each sloping band
of the core were carefully finished. Second were the packing blocks,
which rested on the steps around the core. They were carefully cut
and fitted. Third were the outer casing blocks laid against the packing
stones. These were of the highest quality and were cut with greater
care and precision than any of the others. All three parts were
constructed simultaneously, one course or layer at a time (Macaulay, 11).

This method of using only cut stone enabled the Egyptians to construct a very sturdy central core that would withstand the centuries without modification. To them, this was an essential aspect of the design because according to their beliefs the pyramid was meant to house the body of the pharaoh, whom they considered a god, for eternity.

The pyramids of Mesoamerica, which are not even true pyramids, served an entirely different purpose, and as such, they were not built to withstand the ravages of time. Rather, these "step" or truncated pyramids rose in tiers, on the top of which a small temple was erected. Additionally, their central core was comprised primarily of large, irregular stones that they brought from the general area and piled. An exterior layer of cut stone served as a kind of retaining wall. To give the pyramids a finished look, their builders often added coats of stucco, sometimes colored blood red:

[The pyramids of Mesoamerica] are made of solid rubble, contained
by outer walls, which are covered with a thick layer of stucco,
carefully smoothed, then painted red. The temple itself, made up of
three narrow rooms, was constructed on a tall, narrow platform at
the summit of the pyramid....Although today [the pyramid in Uaxactun]
is brilliant white, it is likely that, along with the majority of pyramids
that came after it, it was once daubed with blood-red paint (Abrams, 111-113).

A structure built in such a manner was clearly not meant to last "forever," as the Egyptian ones were, and in fact, they have suffered greatly: "There is considerable difficulty in obtaining accurate measures of the Castillo [in Chichen Itza], owing to the large amount of fallen stone" (Baudez and Picasso, 8). However, the people of the area did not intend for their structures last millennia because their cosmology was cyclical and demanded that the temples be re-built at the end of certain lengths of time: "The Maya and other cultures of Mesoamerica frequently built new temples on top of old ones at such times as their religious beliefs directed them to do so" (Williamson, 219).

The Arch

Related to the manner of construction is the issue of the arch. Hyper-diffusionists (e.g. Donnelly and Van Daniken) sometimes argue that the presence of the arch in both Old and New World construction is proof of a common source of knowledge. However, any attempt to bolster claims of contact or common origin that hinges on this idea is flawed.

The people of the Old World possessed the true arch with its associated load-bearing keystone. Civilizations in the New World only possessed knowledge of the corbelled arch: "Although the true arch with a ‘keystone’ was present in the ancient Old World...the true arch was unknown in the pre-Columbian New World" (Feder, 176).

The corbelled arch was a less efficient means of supporting structures due to its inability to support the same amount of weight as the true arch. Consequently, the corbelled arch in New World construction led to narrow halls and unstable roof supports. Another reason why the temples of Mexico have suffered.

Public vs. Private

Another key difference between the pyramids of Egypt and those of Mexico is the function that each had. The pyramids of Egypt were used as tombs for the pharaohs, and they were not meant to be entered once the dead pharaoh was placed safely inside. Those of Mexico, though sometimes housed the bodies of kings, were temples of public ceremony and ritual. Not only were they easily accessible via the staircases on their faces, they were also placed at the heart of cities. This contrasts sharply with the locations of the Great Pyramids, which were on the plains west of Memphis and the hidden nature of their recesses.

The first recorded attempt to enter the Great Pyramid of Cheops was made by an Arab caliph named Abdullah Al Mamun. Al Mamun had a deep interest in science and the

arts and commissioned a group of Arab scholars to undertake the calculation of the Earth’s circumference. His scholars came up with a figure of roughly 23,000 miles, which was much closer than that of Ptolemy, but they had no way to check the accuracy of their figure. However, Al Mamun was aware of a rumor that the Great Pyramid contained maps and tables of exceeding accuracy of the terrestrial and celestial spheres, in addition to vast quantities of treasure. So in 820 A.D. Al Mamun undertook an expedition to Giza with the intent of enriching his mind and his treasury:

[Al Mamun] collected a vast conglomeration of engineers, architects,
builders, and stonemasons to attack the Pyramid [of Cheops]; for
days they searched the steep polished surface of the northern slope
for its secret entrance, but could find no trace of it (Tompkins, 7).

Eventually, the frustrated Al Mamun decided to attack the surface with hammer and chisel in an attempt to force a tunnel into the Pyramid’s core. He hoped his tunnel would connect with one of the tunnels he believed the ancient Egyptians had placed throughout the structure. Yet, no matter how many blacksmiths stood ready to sharpen and re-sharpen the tools of Al Mamun’s work force, they could not penetrate the exterior.

In desperation the Arabs built large fires close to the masonry. When the blocks became red hot, the Arabs through cold vinegar on the limestone, causing it to crack. Then battering rams were used to break up the fractured stone.

Al Mamun’s lack of success in discerning any clearly visible entrance is an obvious indicator that the ancient Egyptians desired to keep the contents sealed from everyone except the dead pharaoh. His large work force, which consisted of architects and engineers who would be trained in construction methods, would have found even the most unobtrusive entrance if it had existed. Yet their ingress was made possible through only the most extreme measures.

Surprisingly, the Egyptians did not stop their efforts to limit intruders by excluding a front door. They further augmented their safe-guarding measures by installing a series of granite and limestone plugs at the beginning of the ascending passage which led to what is known today as the Queen’s Chamber. Feeling that he may have stumbled onto an undisturbed chamber when he encountered the plugs, Al Mamun ordered his men to chip through them. When that proved impossible, he ordered them to bypass the granite plugs and chip into the softer limestone that surrounded them. However, even this proved to be an unexpectedly arduous task:

When the Arabs had bored beyond the first granite plug for over 6
feet, they encountered another granite plug, equally hard and equally
tightly wedged. Beyond it lay a third. By now the Arabs had tunneled
more than 16 feet. Beyond the third granite plug they came upon a
passage filled with a limestone plug which could be cracked with chisels
and removed piece by piece. It is not recorded how many such plugs
the Arabs encountered, but they may have had to clear a score or
more... (Tompkins, 10).

Contrast this with the wide, easily ascended staircases of the Mesoamerican pyramids, and the temples placed on their summit which inevitably contain doors that are visible to the naked eye. Clearly, there is no reason to have a staircase unless it is meant to be ascended, and likewise, there is no reason to put doors on the temples at the top of these truncated pyramids unless the temples are meant to be entered.

However, it is not just the presence and lack of things like staircases and exterior entrances that distinguish the private nature of the Egyptian monuments from the public nature of those of Mesoamerica. Where they are situated in regards to the settlements or cities is also important. The temples of Mesoamerica are placed within the hearts of such ancient metropolii as Teotihuacan, often set along broad avenues. This demonstrates that the Mesoamerican sites were far from mere funerary sites or religious sites. The cities where the temples were built served as hubs for their respective empires: "Teotihuacan in the valley of Mexico is, of course, far more than a commercial center. It was a great city as well, which flourished from 200 B.C. to as late as A.D. 750" (Fagan, 133).

Though pyramids occur up and down the course of the Nile, they were never situated inside of large settlements. Rather, they were put well outside of the Egyptian cities. The plains of Giza where the most impressive Egyptian monuments are is located outside of the ancient city of Memphis. This serves to symbolize the god-like stature of the pharaoh since indeed the pharaoh was considered to be a god.

The Mesoamerican pyramids were situated along completely different lines. They were placed directly within the cities of cultures like the Maya and Teotihuacanos. The pyramids often existed at the end of long avenues. At Teotihuacan the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon lie along the avenue of the dead and are separated by tenements, workshops, the houses of elite officials, and smaller temples. Archaeological excavation at cities like Teotihuacan have proven that long human occupation at the site. Whereas at Giza, though there are the remains of mudbrick houses that workers most surely have occupied during the construction of the Egyptian pyramids, there is no evidence of human occupation of the same duration as that of the Mesoamerican sites.

Physical Appearance

The most obvious difference between the pyramids of Mesoamerica and those of Giza is their physical appearance. The Pyramids of Cheops, Kephren, and Menkaure are all true pyramids. That is to say that their relative dimensions of equal and they rise in straight lines at a constant angle. Though there are exceptions to this among the earlier pyramids in Egypt this has more to do with the Egyptians learning the how to make a true pyramid than it has to do with them intentionally designing a truncated one, like the pyramids of Mesoamerica.

Not only are the Mesoamerican pyramids truncated, their exterior is also obviously different due to the amount of decoration, primarily in the form of sculptures representing deities in the Mesoamerican pantheon. These sculptures, though they do not appear on every Mesoamerican pyramid, appear on many, including the famous "El Castillo" at the site of Chichen Itza where the feathered serpent god Quetzacoatl appears frequently:

The "Castillo," or castle, as the Spanish called it shows some of the
architectural innovations of the time, some of them based on the theme
of the "feathered serpent." On each face of the pyramid, as well as
on the main facade, the ramps were designed to resemble the bodies
of snakes, with their heads resting at the foot of the slope (Baudez and
Picasso, 61).

In addition to these sculptures it is believed, as mentioned previously, that the pyramids of Mesoamerica were often coated with a "thick layer of stucco." If the Egyptians and Mesoamericans took their inspiration from the same source, it would reason that their design and decoration would closely parallel each other. However, the Egyptian pyramids, other than the brilliantly polished casing stones, are almost totally devoid of exterior decoration, and they were most certainly never covered in stucco. Not only this, but they also failed to have any kind of temple structure at their summit. So it becomes apparent, even when looking at their appearance, that they are dissimilar.


It would be nice to believe that in days of old when knights were bold and airplanes were invented ancient peoples were able to communicate through some undetermined method and mimic our "information age." It would be nice to believe that the diffusion of Atlantean knowledge or hyper-advanced seafaring skills enabled them to distribute knowledge across mountains, deserts, and oceans--not to mention time. That sort of woebegone hearkening imbues the believer with a sense of hope since what was once may be again. This idea of ancient "magic" for lack of a better word is especially appealing in a time such as today when it seems that society is constantly robbed of the wonderfully supernatural beliefs which it has cherished for so long, things like werewolves, vampires and ESP.

Yet, to hold such a belief in the face of the evidence seems more foolhardy than wistful. Worse yet, it could be dangerous. Ideas of ethnocentrism have long been used to justify violent acts against peoples of differing origins. The Nazis subscribed, at least in part to the "Kultur Kriese" of Gustav Cossina which theorized the Germanic peoples as the single, seminal seed of cultural Europe and beyond. It has been well-established how the Nazis put that theory into practice, using it to justify what the modern world terms "ethnic cleansing." While in its extreme forms ethnocentrism robs outside parties of their lives, the more run of the mill variety, robs cultures of their own ingenuity and independent inventions, making it easier for stronger nations to exploit weaker ones by using the justification of "civilizing" them.

When one scrutinizes the monuments of Mesoamerica and Egypt, it is quite apparent that they were not, other than their megalithic size, affiliated in any discernible way. Not only are the construction methods (cut stone vs. rubble), building materials (stone and stucco vs. wholly stone), relative locations (urban vs. rural), design (truncated vs. true pyramids), and function (public vs. private) all substantially different, these monuments are separated by approximately two millennia. With these inconsistencies, authors resort to complex plot lines, and out-of-this-world explanations because that is the only way to connect two wholly different structures.

In fact, the only reason such beliefs persist is mankind’s deep sense of romanticism and mankind’s even deeper sense of exploiting romanticism for profit. Books like Fingerprints of the Gods, The Orion Mystery, The Message of the Sphinx, and The Mayan Prophecies, purporting such outlandish theories as ancient astronauts, Martian civilization, and Atlantis routinely outsell books on "hard" archaeology. So, as long as people want to believe the pyramids of Mexico and Egypt share a common source, they’ll be able to affirm their beliefs, at least to themselves, by charging $19.95 plus shipping and handling to their Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover at

Questions or comments? E-mail Chris Loethen.

Works Cited

Baudez, Claude and Picasso, Sydney. The Lost Cities of the Maya.
     Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York, 1998.
Bauval, Robert and Gilbert, Adrian. The Orion Mystery. Three Rivers Press, New York, 1994.
Fagan, Brian M. Archaeology, Sixth Edition. Longman, New York, 1997.
Feder, Kenneth L. Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience
     in Archaeology, Third Edition
. Mayfield Publishing Company, London, 1998.
Gilbert, Adrian G. and Cotterel, Maurice M. The Mayan Prophecies.
     Barnes and Noble Books, New York, 1996.
Macaulay, Daivd. Pyramid. Houghlin Mifflin Co., Boston, 1975.
Sabloff, Jeremy A. The New Archaeology and the Ancient Maya.
     Scientific American Library, New York, 1994.
Tompkins, Peter. Secrets of the Great Pyramid: Two Thousand Years of Adventure
     and Discoveries Surrounding the Mystery of the Great Pyramid of Cheops
     Galahad Books, New York, 1978.