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Professor Juan José Batalla

Question for August 2007

Is it true the Aztecs made a sacrifice (on average) every 10 minutes? Asked by St Andrew’s CE Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Juan José Batalla.

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

English: In answering this we come face to face with one of the great lies and exaggerations surrounding the [ancient] Mexican cultures. It’s impossible to carry out such numbers of human sacrifices. You only have to do the maths to realise that they simply didn’t have the resources for sacrifices on this scale. One sacrifice every 10 minutes means 144 per day, 4,320 per month and 51,840 per year. On top of this you need to reckon on the size of army needed to capture the prisoners, the number of guards needed to protect them, and the space needed to accommodate them before being sacrificed. Not even could a modern society carry out such cold blooded killings without resort to automatic fire arms.

‘Saint Dominic presiding over an Auto-da-fe’, painted 1475 by Pedro Berruguete; Prado Museum, Madrid - image from Wikipedia Commons
‘Saint Dominic presiding over an Auto-da-fe’, painted 1475 by Pedro Berruguete; Prado Museum, Madrid - image from Wikipedia Commons (Click on image to enlarge)

The Spanish Conquistadors painted a picture of the Mexican societies they conquered as ‘savage’ because their conquest raised moral problems [back home]. Presenting [the Aztecs] as murderers and cannibals allowed plenty of justification for conquering them. Even so, it has been shown that the pre-Columbian civilisations did carry out human sacrifices in their festivals and in honour of their gods, though quite possibly they performed no more than 200 or 300 a year. It’s worth remembering that at the same time in Europe and Asia ‘human sacrifices’ were being made in the name of God, though the victims tended to be individuals who had in some way offended against God. The most obvious example is the ‘autos de fe’ [literally ‘acts of faith’ - public penance of condemned heretics] during the Spanish Inquisition. Unfortunately, very few human societies have been exempt from the practice of human sacrifice, treating it as the ultimate sacrifice that humans can make to their gods.

Español: ¿Es verdad que los aztecas hacían un sacrificio cada diez minutos?
Nos encontramos ante una de las grandes mentiras y exageraciones que se han llevado a cabo sobre las culturas mexicanas. Es imposible llevar a cabo semejante número de sacrificios humanos. Es suficiente hacer cuentas matemáticas para comprender que esto no podía realizarse en estas culturas, pues no tenían capacidad para ello. Un sacrificio cada 10 minutos supone 144 al día, 4320 al mes y 51840 al año. A ello hay que unir el ejército que tendría que capturar los prisioneros, los vigilantes para los mismos y lugares especiales para “guardar” a las víctimas antes del sacrificio. Ni tan siquiera una cultura actual podría llevar a cabo semejantes matanzas a “cuchillo” y sin el uso de armas de fuego automáticas.

Los conquistadores españoles presentaron a las culturas mexicanas como “salvajes” debido a los problemas morales que suponía su conquista. De este modo, si se manifestaba que eran unos asesinos y antropófagos había razones que justificaban su sometimiento. No obstante, está demostrado que las culturas mexicanas realizaban sacrificos humanos en sus festividades y en honor a sus dioses, pero posiblemente no pasaran de 200 ó 300 personas al año. Este número nos puede resultar también elevado pero, en la misma época, en Europa y Asia también se practicaban “sacrificios humanos” en nombre de Dios, aunque en este caso se solían llevar a cabo sobre personas que supuestamente ofendían de diversas manera al mismo. El caso más claro de ello lo encontramos en los “autos de fe” de la Santa Inquisición. Desafortunadamente muy pocas culturas han estado exentas de la práctica del sacrificio humano, pues todas son conscientes de que es la máxima ofrenda que se puede hacer a los dioses.

Professor Juan José Batalla has answered 7 questions altogether:

Physically how were the skulls stuck into the skullracks?

Was there any contact between the Aztecs and the ancient Egyptians?

Did most words in the Aztec language end in -tl?

When did the 5 ‘useless’ days come in the Aztec calendar?

Are Spanish children taught in school about what happened to the Aztecs?

Is it true the Aztecs made a sacrifice (on average) every 10 minutes?

How did scribes get rid of mistakes when they wrote their books?

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