The main reasons why Aztec human sacrifice has found, until not long ago, people who obstinately disbelieved that it was practiced are partly because anything so atrocious has hardly ever happened, to human knowledge, on such a scale, partly for political correctness and the Enlightenment idea of the “noble savage” – one of the consequences of which is that it’s allowed to criticize, accuse or blame only Europeans and their descendants –, and partly because the only witnesses of Aztec human sacrifices had been Spanish Conquistadors, who by definition could not be believed, in principle.
But the basis for the last reason, only superficially obvious, is easily dismantled by rational argument: of course nobody witnessed those barbarities after the Conquistadors, as they wiped them out by conquering the Aztec Empire.
Sources on Aztec Human Sacrifice
We have two sources that inform us of widespread Aztec human sacrifice and cannibalism. One is the chronicles and history books written by the Spanish who either witnessed these atrocities or collected the accounts of witnesses, which is the method of historiography.
The second source is the original paintings portraying these acts made by the Aztecs themselves, who did not have writing and communicated mostly by images, a bit like, in Europe, the men from the Upper Palaeolithic Stone Age who left drawings and paintings on the walls of their caves, from which we can reconstruct scenes of their lives.
These form part of what has come to be known as Aztec Codices, namely research studies,
collections and transcriptions of Aztecs pictorial documentation, which were the work of Spanish Catholic missionaries who lovingly collaborated with the Aztecs to recapture their past, language, and culture before they were lost.
The Aztec Codices are often named after the European libraries where they are preserved, for example the Florentine Codex, which is kept in the Laurentian Library of Florence (Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana).
In the pre-Columbian period the Aztec codices are pictographic, namely made of images. After the Spanish conquest they contain pictograms as well as writing in Nahuatl language in Latin characters, in Spanish, and in the Latin language.
Even long after the arrival of Europeans the Aztecs could only express themselves through images, well into the early 17th century.
These paintings and drawings remain valid and important records.
Evidence of Aztec Human Sacrifice
Despite the many attempts over the decades, nay centuries, to deny that pre-Columbians performed these horrendous practices, and then, when it was impossible to deny them, to justify them even, and to draw distinctions between Aztecs vs the “peaceful” Mayans, the truth has come out more and more.
Enter contemporary methods of investigation, which can reconstruct the past in the absence of direct witnesses (yes, what you can see in police and detective stories and TV dramas a la Crime Scene Investigation, CSI, which reflect real-life scientific procedures).
In more recent years, using high-technology forensic tools, archaeologists have discovered physical evidence that corroborates and confirms the Spanish accounts, as well as the pictorial documentation coming from the Aztecs themselves.
Harvard University anthropologist David Stuart said that
in carvings and mural paintings, he said, “we have now found more and greater similarities between the Aztecs and Mayas,” including a Maya ceremony in which a costumed priest is shown pulling the entrails from a bound and apparently living sacrificial victim.
Both human sacrifice and cannibalism have been corroborated, including of children, as well as various methods, in which “Victims had their hearts cut out or were decapitated, shot full of arrows, clawed, sliced, stoned, crushed, skinned, buried alive or tossed from the tops of temples.”
Archeologist Nadia Velez Saldana explained:
“We found a burial pit with the skeletal remains of four children who were partially burned, and the remains of four other children that were completely carbonized.”
The quantity of scientific, historic and archaeological proofs of Aztec, Inca, Maya human sacrifice and cannibalism has become so vast that here I can only give some research results and examples of the atrocities uncovered. You can easily find much more for yourself.
The Aztec Empire of the 15th and 16th centuries was in expansion, subjugating new populations. Aztecs believed that constant, regular, never-ending human sacrifice was necessary for the continuation of the world and of their own lives. The Aztec god of the sun Huitzilopochtli had to be nourished with human hearts and blood from these sacrifices. Only thus could Huitzilopochtli keep emitting light, defeat darkness and prevent the end of the world.
The Aztecs’ persistent battles with their neighbours had the purpose not to kill the foes but to make war captives to offer as sacrifices to Aztec gods, in particular to the sun god Huitzilopochtli.
DNA tests of recovered victims from the site of Templo Mayor in the ancient Aztec capital Tenochtitlán show that the vast majority of those sacrificed were not Aztecs but outsiders, foreigners, probably enemy soldiers or slaves.
Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan
According to Aztec sources, as many as 84,000 people, all made captive in wars against their neighbours, were sacrificed on a single occasion to mark the consecration of the Templo Mayor, or Great Pyramid, of Tenochtitlan in 1487.
The Aztecs would boast to the Spaniards that they did not kill their enemies in war, but instead took them prisoner in order to take their lives and pluck out their hearts when the combat was over.
Let’s start with the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztecs (later to become Mexico City), where the Spanish conquistadors had reported, in shock and bewilderment, seeing with their own eyes human sacrifice and cannibalism and were not believed.
Between February and June 2015, archaeologists found something that confirmed what had been described both by Aztecs themselves in their images, and by written chronicles and reports from the Spanish conquistadors: another example of “tzompantli”.
Tzompantli were racks where Aztecs exhibited the heads they had severed from sacrifice victims by placing them on wooden poles pushed through the sides of the skull. The poles were suspended horizontally on vertical posts.
What was found in 2015 was the main trophy rack of sacrificed human skulls at Mexico City’s Templo Mayor Aztec ruin site.
NBC News published an Associated Press release, saying that the difference about this tzompantli, which made the discovery more important, was a new element: archaeologists at the National Institute of Anthropology and History said that “part of the platform where the heads were displayed was made of rows of skulls mortared together roughly in a circle, around a seemingly empty space in the middle. All the skulls were arranged to look inward toward the center of the circle, but experts don’t know what was at the center.”
Archaeologist Raul Barrera said that “there are 35 skulls that we can see, but there are many more” in underlying layers. “As we continue to dig the number is going to rise a lot.” Barrera noted that one Spanish writer soon after the conquest described mortared-together skulls, but none had been found before…
Barrera said the location fit very well with the first Spanish descriptions of the temple complex. [Emphases added]
“L[l]iteral skulls becoming architectural material to be mortared together to make a structure” are something not much heard of.
Archaeologist Raul Barrera was right when he predicted that more skulls would be unearthed, on a big scale: from 35 in 2015 the number rose to over 675 skulls of men, women and children one and a half years later, according to a 2017 article from Reuters:
Barrera said 676 skulls had so far been found, and that the number would rise as excavations went on.
The news this time was the discovery in 2017 of a cylindrical building in Mexico City next to the ancient Aztec Templo Mayor, on the corner of the “chapel” of Huitzilopochtli, Aztec god of the sun, war and human sacrifice.
The edifice, believe it or not, is practically made of human skulls, caked in lime. The tower is thought to be part of the Huey Tzompantli, a massive array of skulls.
Archaeologist Raul Barrera of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, who was working at the site, said the skulls would have been set in the tower after having been on public display on the tzompantli.
But the archaeological excavation which began in 2015 gave rise to a deeper understanding of Aztec sacrifice which was then not yet complete:
“We were expecting just men, obviously young men, as warriors would be, and the thing about the women and children is that you’d think they wouldn’t be going to war,” said Rodrigo Bolanos, a biological anthropologist investigating the find.
“Something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new, a first in the Huey Tzompantli,” he added…
There was no doubt that the tower was one of the skull edifices mentioned by Andres de Tapia, a Spanish soldier who accompanied Cortes in the 1521 conquest of Mexico, Barrera said.
In his account of the campaign, de Tapia said he counted tens of thousands of skulls at what became known as the Huey Tzompantli. [Emphases added]
Reuters titles its report “Tower of human skulls in Mexico casts new light on Aztecs”, by which I suppose it accepts acknowledgement of Aztec sacrifices, long denied by political correctness, as the article concludes:
The Aztecs and other Mesoamerican peoples performed ritualistic human sacrifices as offerings to the sun.
Aztec Human Sacrifices of Spaniards
Human skulls, bones, bodies’ remains and other archaeological evidence from the excavations at the ancient Zultépec-Tecoaque site, modern-day Calpulalpan, in Tlaxcala, Mexico, have revealed that Aztecs tortured, sacrificed and ate the dismembered bodies of about 550 Spanish men, women and children and some of their native allies of the Spaniards.
The work by archaeologists of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) at Zultepec-Tecoaque took years, as excavations started in 1992.
The Aztecs in 1520 imprisoned the Spanish caravan, and the victims were held for around half a year.
It was a drawn-out massacre. After their capture, all the caravan’s members were placed in cages. Aztec priests, coming to Zultepec from the capital, would go to the cages before dawn and select individuals for that day’s sacrifices.
“It was a continuous sacrifice over six months. While the prisoners were listening to their companions being sacrificed, the next ones were being selected,” explained Enrique Martinez, director of the archaeologist dig, while standing in his lab containing boxes of bones, some of small children. “You can only imagine what it was like for the last ones, who were left six months before being chosen, their anguish.”
The bones found at Zultepec-Tecoaque show that the victims had their hearts ripped out during ritual sacrifice, and had their bones boiled and scraped clean.
These findings put an end to the controversy about Aztec cannibalism: horrendous as it sound, the careful inspection of bones and skeletons found establishes that the victims’ bodies were dismembered and eaten by the Aztecs. Mr Martinez says knife cuts and even teeth marks are visible on some bones, showing how human flesh had been ripped off to be cooked. He has also found evidence that some pregnant women had their unborn babies stabbed while still in their wombs, as part of a pagan ritual.
The Zultepec Aztecs apparently tried to conceal all possible proof of the massacre by throwing their victims’ possessions down deep wells, including jewellery and buttons, involuntarily preserving them for archeological excavations.
Many of the most interesting finds were discovered in a large drainage system of canals and cisterns full of hundreds of objects, animal and human remains. artefacts.
The findings support accounts of Aztecs capturing and slaughtering a caravan led by Spanish conquistadors.
The town was eventually renamed from Zultepec to Tecoaque, which in the native Nahuatl language means: “The place where they ate them.”
An example of Aztec sacrifice of Spaniards is offered by chronicler Bernal Díaz:
Slightly more than a year and half later, in the early summer of 1521, it was a glimpse of hell. Again the Spaniards found themselves on the lakeshore, looking toward the great capital. But this time they had just been driven back from the city by the Aztec army. Sixty-two of their companions had been captured, and Cortés and the other survivors helplessly watched a pageant being enacted a mile away across the water on one of the major temple-pyramids of the city. As Bernal Díaz later described it.
“The dismal drum of Huichilobos sounded again, accompanied by conches, horns, and trumpet-like instruments. It was a terrifying sound, and when we looked at the tall cue [temple-pyramid] from which it came we saw our comrades who had been captured in Cortés defeat being dragged up the steps to be sacrificed. When they had hauled them up to a small platform in front of the shrine where they kept their accursed idols we saw them put plumes on the heads of many of them; and then they made them dance with a sort of fan in front of Huichilobos. Then after they had danced the papas [Aztec priests] laid them down on their backs on some narrow stones of sacrifice and, cutting open their chests, drew out their palpitating hearts which they offered to the idols before them.”
Cortés and his men were the only Europeans to see the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, for the practice ended shortly after the successful Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. [Emphasis added]