General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Our In-House Team

Question for April 2016

When children were punished, how long were they held over smoking chillies for? Asked by Morgans Primary School. Chosen and answered by Our In-House Team.

Punishing two Mexica (Aztec) 11-year-old children: the dad holds his son over smoking chillies, the mum threatens her daughter with the same treatment. Codex Mendoza, fol. 60r (detail)
Punishing two Mexica (Aztec) 11-year-old children: the dad holds his son over smoking chillies, the mum threatens her daughter with the same treatment. Codex Mendoza, fol. 60r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The short answer is, we don’t know. The long answer is, common sense tells us it would only have been for seconds rather than minutes. Aztec sources like the Codex Mendoza and the Florentine Codex tell us that Aztec parents were loving but also very strict. They tell us that punishing a child by holding them over smoking chillies was considered a ‘cruel torment’. it causes weeping, skin irritation, a strong burning sensation, prolonged coughing and difficulty breathing. This is due to the chemical properties of chillies, which contain a powerful compound called capsaicin that acts as a strong irritant, sending an urgent ‘Danger: you’re burning!’ signal to the brain.
In sufficient concentration - if you’re forced to breathe in smoking chilli fumes for long enough and in a confined space - it can lead to asphyxia (lack of oxygen) and death. A Spanish chronicler tells of its deliberate use (to kill) ‘by lords of a restive Aztec province to eliminate unwelcome imperial visitors from the capital in Tenochtitlan. These lords of Cuetlaxtla sealed off the Aztecs’ bedchamber and then lit a huge pile of chiles. The resulting smoke was so overwhelming that the trapped messengers suffocated’! (The Essential Codex Mendoza, p. 161).

Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938.

‘How chili powder can kill a child’ - a doctor explains (doubleXscience.org)

Our In-House Team has answered 20 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs have different types of chewing gum to today’s?

Did the Aztecs have a god of snow?

Which parts of the Day of the Dead festival go back to the Aztecs?

Why did they put holes [gaps] in the [upright huehuetl] drums?

Was Snake Woman an Aztec empress?

How big was the Aztec army?

Did they have First Aid?

Which pet was the Aztecs’ favourite?

Why did they call them ‘chinampas’?

Did the Spanish have an interpreter when they conquered the Aztecs?

Which was the Aztecs’ most fearsome weapon?

Why was the Sun God called Tonatiuh?

Did they send post (mail)?

Did they have the same seasons as we do?

What did they do with the shells of armadillos after eating the meat?

Why didn’t Aztec houses have doors?

Which was the biggest group [job sector] in Aztec society?

Why is it better to support loads on the forehead and not on the shoulders?

When children were punished, how long were they held over smoking chillies for?

What was the Aztecs’ greatest fear?

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