General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
Text Size:

Search the Site (type in white box):

Professor Cecilia Rossell

Question for August 2009

Have traces of real blood been found on the sacrifice knife blades? Asked by Holland Junior School. Chosen and answered by Professor Cecilia Rossell.

Part of an Aztec ‘ofrenda’ (offering) for children, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Part of an Aztec ‘ofrenda’ (offering) for children, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

English: Apparently no blood has remained on these blades, because blood dries up and falls off; in any case, the ones we have were found buried in archaeological sites, where the earth around would have absorbed any blood if there was any. But we do have many accounts from 16th century texts and from Mesoamerican codices, where human sacrifices are described or represented.

Human sacrifice, Codex Laud (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Human sacrifice, Codex Laud (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)

Knives or blades were made of silex [a finely ground form of silica] or flintstone ( tecpatl) or of obsidian ( itztli) - both are volcanic stones similar to glass and hence very sharp; but the knife used specifically for sacrificing animals and humans was special and kept apart: it even had its own name ixquauac, whose name may refer to the face of an eagle (the stone recipient in which hearts were placed was called an eagle bowl), and the knife itself was considered to have a life of its own. Sacrifices - offered to the gods - were always part of a ritual celebrated in temples on top of pyramids, carried out by a special class of priest on special occasions. Blood was offered with all that it represented - life itself, the greatest and most valuable gift a human being could make to the gods.

A stone Aztec eagle bowl - recipient for sacrificed human hearts
A stone Aztec eagle bowl - recipient for sacrificed human hearts (Click on image to enlarge)

Español: Al parecer no ha quedado ninguna sangre en estos cuchillos, porque la sangre se seca y se cae, además porque los que tenemos fueron encontrados enterrados en sitios arqueológicos, por lo que la tierra hubiera absorbido la sangre si la había. Pero tenemos muchos relatos en libros antiguos del siglo XVI así como imágenes en los códices mesoamericanos en donde se describe o se representan sacrificios humanos.

Aztec obsidian blades, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Aztec obsidian blades, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Los cuchillos o navajas se hacían con piedra de silex o pedernal ( tecpatl) y también de obsidiana ( itztli), ambos son piedras volcánicas semejantes al vidrio por lo que eran muy filosas y cortantes, pero el cuchillo que se usaba para sacrificios de animales o de personas era especial y se guardaba aparte e incluso tenía un nombre especial ixquauac, cuya traducción tal vez se refiera al rostro del águila, ya que el recipiente de piedra donde se ponían los corazones se llamaba vaso del águila, y se consideraba que ese cuchillo tenía vida propia. Los sacrificios siempre eran parte de un ritual que se celebraba en los templos arriba de las pirámides, los hacía un sacerdote especial en momentos especiales para ofrecerlo a sus dioses, les ofrecían la sangre y lo que ésta representaba: la vida, que al ser lo más valioso que tienen los seres humanos por eso era la máxima ofrenda que se podía dar sus dioses.

Picture sources:-
Photos of offering and obsidian blades by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
Photo of eagle bowl by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

Update May 2012. Researchers at INAH (Mexico’s National Institute for Anthropology and History) have completed a 20-year study, using electronic microscopy, of blood cells and muscle, tendons, skin and hair found on 2000 year old obsidian knives, ‘showing these were knives used for human sacrifice’ (though some have doubts on this: might it simply be evidence of the use of the knives for medical and ritual surgery, after death?). The knives were found at the site of Cantona in Puebla. Follow the link below to read more...

Yahoo! News report (May 2012)

Professor Cecilia Rossell has answered 7 questions altogether:

Which was the most precious colour for the Aztecs and why?

Why were cocoa beans so valuable?

Did the Aztecs use make-up?

How did the hearts actually get to the gods?

Did they take feathers equally from male and female quetzal birds?

Have traces of real blood been found on the sacrifice knife blades?

How old was the oldest codex?

Comment button