The imperial cannibalism of the Aztecs, an uncomfortable truth for critics of the Conquest


Archaeological finds from recent years show that the conquerors’ accounts of the cannibalism of the civilization that dominated central Mexico from the 14th to the 16th century were not mere war propaganda

The other side of the black legend about the colonization of America by the Spanish is the idealization of the pre-Columbian world, painted as an Eden in which the indigenous people lived in harmony with each other and with nature. The greatness of the Aztec culture, embodied in its monumental constructions, or the Inca “socialism” were elements of a story that concealed an implacable rule of those empires over other ethnic groups that they subjugated, exploited, looted and, in certain cases, devoured. . Literally.

“I heard that they used to cook (Moctezuma) the meats of young boys … (…) but I know that certainly since our captain [Hernán Cortés] rebuked him for sacrificing and eating human meat, that since then he ordered that such a delicacy should not be cooked for him ”. Who writes this is Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Spanish conqueror, who in 1519 under the command of Hernán Cortés participated in the expedition that put an end to the Aztec Empire.

Other testimonies gave an account of the existence of walls built with skulls in Tenochtitlán. “Outside the temple, and in front of the main door, although more than a stone’s throw away, was an ossuary with the heads of men imprisoned in war and sacrificed by the knife, which was like a theater longer than it was wide, made of lime and I sing with its steps, in which skulls were swallowed between stone and stone with their teeth out ”. That story by the chronicler Francisco López de Gómara , in Historia de las conquests de Hernán Cortés , collected the testimony of Andrés de Tapia and Gonzalo de Umbría, two of Cortés’s men, about the existence of this ossuary.

Aztec walls of human skullsAztec walls of human skulls

Stories like this one were relativized or disqualified for suspicion of subjectivity and lack of material evidence, until the archaeological evidence confirmed them: in 2017, and after two years of excavations, Mexican archaeologists found part of those walls built with human skulls, in the place where the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlán was located, in the heart of the current Mexican capital. The additional surprise was that among these human bricks, there were several belonging to women and children.

Until then, it was said that the human sacrifices of the Aztecs were sporadic, that cannibalism was even more so and that that wall of human remains, if it existed, was composed only of the heads of warriors captured in battle and that the objective of its exhibition on a wall was intimidation.

In recent years, the idealization and eulogy of “original” cultures has deepened and in this context there has been untimely condemnation of the cruelty of the Spaniards, reducing the entire colonization enterprise to genocide and ignoring culture and institutions exported to America and, more importantly, the process of miscegenation promoted from the first moment by the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Fernando, and continued by their grandson, Carlos I of Spain. Miscegenation gave rise to the current Hispanic American nationalities. An almost exclusive feature of Spanish domination: if we look at the colonies owned by other European countries, we will see that there was almost non-existent miscegenation because the staff of the metropolis lived isolated from the local population,

An impact on the present of these misrepresentations of the past was the resignation of Spain to commemorate, in 2019, the 500 years of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortes; and actually, the birth of Mexico. Instead, the president of that country, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, chose this year to evoke the 5 centuries since the fall of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. In addition to his constant and absurd demand that Spain and the Church apologize for the conquest and colonization when in reality the Mexican nation emerged from that process.

Hernán Cortés: the construction of today's Mexico begins with his arrival

Hernán Cortés: the construction of today’s Mexico begins with his arrival

In that task, López Obrador got involved in a debate with the Argentine historian Marcelo Gullo who has just published Madre Patria, a book that dismantles the black legend and is a best seller in Spain. One of his main hypotheses is that Cortés did not conquer Mexico but freed it from Aztec oppression; With only 700 men, however, he was able to gather an army of 300,000 Indians belonging to the ethnic groups oppressed by the Moctezuma empire who joined his campaign.

The Mexican President criticized this hypothesis but had to admit that “various indigenous peoples such as the Totonacs, the Tlaxcalans, the Otomi, the Texcoco” and others “helped Cortés,” although he added that “this fact should not serve to justify the killings carried out carried out by the conquerors, nor does it diminish the importance of the cultural greatness of the vanquished ”. He also admitted that the idea “that Moctezuma was a tyrant may be true.” “Nor should Cortés be seen as a demon, he was simply a man with power,” he said.

These admissions imply that his insistence on an extemporaneous and incomplete view, to say the least, of the conquest and his eulogy of Aztec culture are closer to deception than conviction.

His latest occurrence has been to rename the colonial period as “indigenous resistance.” “We are going to remember with pain and regret” the conquest because of the “tremendous violence it entailed,” he said on August 12 in reference to the fall of Tenochtitlán, which was actually celebrated by most of the ethnic groups that populated the area.

On the other hand, as Marcelo Gullo warns, he makes the mistake of assimilating the history of the Aztecs with the history of Mexico since they were only one of the many ethnic groups that inhabited that territory. And he quotes the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos who affirms that “the history of Mexico begins as an episode in the great Odyssey of the discovery and occupation of the New World.”

López Obrador rejected Marcelo Gullo's thesis that Cortés did not conquer Mexico but freed it from Aztec oppressionLópez Obrador rejected Marcelo Gullo’s thesis that Cortés did not conquer Mexico but freed it from Aztec oppression

“Before the arrival of the Spanish,” says Vasconcelos, “Mexico did not exist as a nation; a multitude of tribes separated by rivers and mountains and by the deepest abyss of its three hundred dialects, inhabited the regions that today make up the homeland. The Aztecs dominated just one area of ​​the plateau … (…) No national idea related the castes; On the contrary, the fiercest enmity fueled perpetual war, which only the Spanish conquest brought to an end. “

Regarding anthropophagy – a taboo subject for political correctness – Gullo quotes the American anthropologist Marvin Harris, who in Cannibals and Reyes (1977) wrote: “The most remarkable thing is that the Aztecs transformed human sacrifice from an occasional derivative of luck. on the battlefield in a routine whereby not a day passed without someone not being laid on the altars of great temples like those of Uitz Uopochtli and Tlaloc. And the sacrifices were also celebrated in dozens of smaller temples that were reduced to what we could call neighborhood chapels ”.

Harris mentions the fortuitous discovery of one of these chapels, “a low, circular structure” about 6 meters in diameter “, discovered when the subway of the Mexican capital was being built. “Now it is located, preserved behind glass, in one of the busiest stations. To illustrate the travelers, a plaque appears in which it is only said that the ancient Mexicans were very religious, ”he says.

On this Gullo comments: “As the example of that simple plaque shows, if there is a people whose own history has been falsified, that is the people of Mexico. They are made to believe [that] they are all descended [from the Aztecs, and to forget] that many of those who read that plaque descend from the peoples that the Aztecs captured to perform their human sacrifices ”.

The first skull walls were found during the construction of the Mexico City subway, but the public is not informed exactly what it is.The first skull walls were found during the construction of the Mexico City subway, but the public is not informed exactly what it is.

If anything denies the virtues of empires like the Azteca, it is precisely the adventure of Hernán Cortés, who could not have defeated Moctezuma without the cooperation of the ethnic groups subjected by the Mexica, who saw the arrival of the Spanish as an opportunity for emancipation.

One of the cruelest features of that Aztec domain was human sacrifice. It is not an exclusive characteristic of these people, but the modality, extension and intensity of this practice is, and the fact that the fruit of human offerings to the gods went to the table of the Mexica emperor and his nobility.

The descriptions of these sacrifices are shocking to read. As shocking as the human sacrifice scenes in Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto, they earned him harsh criticism from opponents of the conquest. The film deals with the Mayan culture, but the modality was very similar to the Aztec one: the extraction of the heart from the victim still alive to be offered to the god, then the unfortunate being thrown down the steep edge of the pyramid, and finally the slaughter of the “pieces” for distribution …

 Apocalypto, Mel Gibson's film about the Maya, was considered too crude in the human sacrifice scenes, but archaeological evidence tends to back it up.

Apocalypto, Mel Gibson’s film about the Maya, was considered too crude in the human sacrifice scenes, but archaeological evidence tends to back it up.

“After they had killed them and taken out their hearts, they carried the little steps, rolling down the steps; Arriving below, they cut off the heads and snapped a stick, and the bodies were taken to the houses they called calpul, where they were distributed to eat. ” This is what Fray Bernardino de Sahagún wrote , in Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España . Sahagún was the first to study Aztec culture. He described in detail the ceremonies and religious calendar of the Aztecs. Many prisoners of war were held captive to be sacrificed on certain dates.

Sahagún continues: “After being flayed (…) the bodies were taken to Calpulco, where the owner of the captive had made his vow or promise; There they divided him and sent Moctezuma a thigh so that he could eat, and the rest they distributed to the other principals or relatives (…). They cooked that meat with corn, and gave each one a piece [in] a bowl or bowl, with its broth and cooked corn. “

Sacrifices were not limited to adults: “Before they were taken to kill these sad children, they adorned them with precious stones,” says Sahagún, “with rich feathers and with very curious and carved blankets and maxtles (…); and when they were taking the children to the places where they were to be killed, if they were crying and shed a lot of tears, those who saw them cry rejoiced because they said it was a sign that it would rain very soon ”.

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The history of these “banquets” was hidden for a long time behind the exaltation of pre-Columbian indigenous civilizations, in contrast to the story about the horrors committed by the Spanish and a supposed deliberate extermination of the native population, a legend created yesterday and spread by enemies and competitors of the Spanish Crown – who coveted its vast overseas dominions – and today revived by referents of Latin American populism who find it easier to confront the empires of a bygone time than to cut the Gordian knots that hold back the development of their countries in the present.

In the Ciencia Unam site, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in a work entitled “Human Sacrifices: Blood for the Gods”, it is explained that the wall of skulls found by archaeologists in Tenochtitlán, called huey tzompantli, was “a building civic-religious where the skulls of the sacrificed were placed ”. The heads were embedded in the tezontle, a volcanic stone from the region. “Huey tzompantli” just means “great row of skulls.”

In this photo you can see the shape of the huey tzompantli.  This is the one of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, in Mexico City

In this photo you can see the shape of the huey tzompantli. This is the one of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, in Mexico City

“In the walls were embedded the heads of warriors and slaves sacrificed, chosen for the celebrations, ” says the article. It is estimated that in the excavated part there are remains corresponding to around 1000 people, but according to archaeologists, that would be only a third of the complete building ”. But in addition, tzompantli have been found in other areas of the country, although the largest would be that of Tenochtitlan. .

It is the largest archaeological evidence existing so far on the practice of human sacrifices of the Aztecs.

But now that they must surrender to the evidence, many specialists take a benevolent look at these practices. An example is an article – “Human sacrifice among the Mexica” – by researchers Alfredo López Austin and Leonardo López Luján who warn: “… human sacrifice will be unintelligible if we do not take into account its location and its assembly as a piece of that great puzzle that we call worldview. A simplistic perception of sacrifice as an isolated phenomenon will produce easy condemnations, even an immediate repudiation of the practicing people ”.

These warnings could also be applied to the worldview of the Spanish, but we well know that this is not the case. The conquerors are judged with categories of the present, without regard.

Illustration of the Huey Tzompantli from the Templo Mayor in another Spanish codex from the first years of the colonization (Codex Ramírez)Illustration of the Huey Tzompantli from the Templo Mayor in another Spanish codex from the first years of the colonization (Codex Ramírez)

Another example of this benevolence is that of Fernando Anaya Monroy, who in an article entitled “Anthropophagy among ancient Mexicans” argues that “the reasons for the pre-Columbian anthropophagic practice should be specified. He proposes to “look” at the past of his country, “not to judge it but to understand it”, which is very good, if not for the double standards. The aborigines are justified as much as the Spaniards are condemned.

“We insist that, according to the data from the sources, anthropophagy existed among the ancient indigenous peoples, but that its meaning had a ritual character and did not constitute a daily custom and environment,” Anaya Monroy clarifies. A half-truth, as it will be seen.

Image of the Codex Tudela, from the early days of colonization

Image of the Codex Tudela, from the early days of colonization

Anthropophagy, he goes on to say, “only symbolized the union of man with divinity”, and “meat should be eaten with the sense of a communion (with divinity)”, he adds.

“The religious was then an essential motive to practice anthropophagy among the ancient natives; in the understanding that the dead [ N. of the R: those of the Aztecs, it is understood, the others were food ] were not objects of forgetfulness or contempt ”.

Remarkable tolerance towards the Aztec religion on the part of the same accusers of the Spanish evangelization.

“Anthropophagy is then presented, among ancient Mexicans, as a fact that, rather than being judged, must be explained and understood, entering into the cultural pattern in which it was carried out and without the prejudice of a strictly Western vision

Translation: the Spaniards with their medieval mentality did not understand the magical world of the natives …

The human sacrifices of the Aztecs in the Codex Magliabechiano, Mexico 16th century

The human sacrifices of the Aztecs in the Codex Magliabechiano, Mexico 16th century

But it turns out that this anthropophagy, which according to today’s indigenists did not exist or was only sporadic and ritual, had to be prohibited by a Law of the Indies (XII of Title 1 of Book 1), dictated by Carlos V in June 1523: “ We order, and we order our Viceroys, Audiences, and Governors of the Indies, to […] expressly prohibit idolatrous Indians with serious penalties and to eat human flesh, even if it is from prisoners and those killed in war … “

Now, Sahagun himself says that these human sacrifices were carried out on a daily basis during the months of Tlacaxipehuliztili [March] and Tepeihuitl, [from September 30 to October 19] dedicated respectively to the gods Xipe Tótec and Tláloc, and that the ceremonies included the practice of cannibalism. I mean, they weren’t so sporadic.

French anthropologist and historian Christian Duverger, who has researched Aztec sacrifices, wrote: “Aztec cannibalism was not entirely invented by the Spanish to justify their bloody conquest. Nor can it be concealed behind a mystical alibi, since it cannot be reduced to ritual cannibalism […]. No! Anthropophagy is part of the Aztec reality and its practice is much more common and much more natural than what is sometimes presented. “

“Many historians delicately omit to narrate how human sacrifices took place. Worshipers of the black legend deliberately omit it and others do not mention them simply because they are unlearned, ”Gullo writes. But today, among the scientific evidence found, he says, there are human skeletons executed by cardiectomy, with cut marks on the ribs, and beheadings.

A Spanish captive is dragged to the top of the pyramid by Aztec priests to be sacrificed.  Illustration from the book The conquest of Mexico by William Hickling, 1796-1859.

A Spanish captive is dragged to the top of the pyramid by Aztec priests to be sacrificed. Illustration from the book The conquest of Mexico by William Hickling, 1796-1859.

According to the estimates of some historians, such as the American William Prescott, the number of sacrificed victims was around twenty thousand per year. And Marvin Harris points out that “although all the other archaic and not so archaic states practiced carnage and massive atrocities, none of them did so on the pretext that the heavenly princes had the uncontrollable desire to drink human blood.”

“The main source of food for the Aztec gods was constituted by the prisoners of war,” adds Harris, “who ascended the steps of the pyramids to the temples, were taken by four priests, stretched out face-up on the stone altar and opened from one side of the chest to the other with an obsidian knife wielded by a fifth priest. Afterward, the victim’s heart – generally described as still beating – was ripped out and burned as an offering. The body rolled down the steps of the pyramid: which were deliberately built steeply to fulfill this function ”.

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Harris then specifies what was the final destination of the bodies: “As (Michael) Harner (of the New School) affirms, there is really no mystery regarding what happened to the corpses, since all the accounts of the witnesses The eyeballs coincide in general lines: the victims were eaten ”.

There is surely still much to investigate and many ossuaries to unearth to establish more precisely the dimension of this practice. But it is striking that those to whom the word genocide sprouts with great ease every time it comes to the Spanish conquest do not apply it to the Aztecs with respect to the peoples they subjugated.

The same methodological, conceptual and, above all, temporal precautions that are suggested for the study of indigenous cultures should apply to the process of Spanish conquest and colonization.


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