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What evidence is there of human sacrifice?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Manuel Mardel: What proof, other than propaganda by the Spanish conquerors and the continued western ideology of a lesser people, is there of sacrifice? (Answer compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: ‘The Aztec World’ commissioned by the Field Museum, Chicago
Pic 1: ‘The Aztec World’ commissioned by the Field Museum, Chicago (Click on image to enlarge)

This is an excellent question - if a bit loaded! We think there’s no better way to answer it than by quoting (with permission) a section titled ‘The Evidence of Human Sacrifice’ in the chapter ‘Aztec Human Sacrifice’ by Alfredo López Austin and Leonardo López Austin (both members of our Panel of Experts) in the book The Aztec World edited by Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and Gary M. Feinman, Abrams, 2008 (NOTE: we have omitted academic references). Both are eminent Mexican scholars in the fields of anthropology and archaeology. Their piece is measured, accessible and pretty well up-to-date...

Pic 2: Stone skull rack, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 2: Stone skull rack, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The social sciences offer a framework free of oversimplification based on varied, objective forms of evidence. The scientific method offers an objective, critical means to evaluate the hypotheses and theories that try to explain social institutions and processes in their historic and cultural context. In the specific case of Aztec sacrifice, a good number of serious, reliable scientific publications of different orientations exist. Among them we can recommend La Fleur Létale [The Lethal Flower] by Christian Duverger, Ritual Human Sacrifice in Mesoamerica edited by Elizabeth H. Boone, El sacrificio humano entre los mexicas [Human Sacrifice among the Mexicas] by Yótotl González Torres, The Human Body and Ideology by Alfredo López Austin, City of Sacrifice by Davíd Carrasco, Le sacrifice humain chez les aztèques [Human Sacrifice among the Aztecs] by Michel Graulich, and Sacrificio humano [Mesoamerican Sacrifice] edited by Leonardo López Austin and Guilhem Olivier. These publications rely mainly on the documentary sources produced in the first decades of the colonial period: the Nahuatl pictographs and texts written in Latin characters by the natives; the tales of the conquistadors, eyewitnesses to the religious life of Tenochtitlan, and descriptions of the Aztec cult made by the missionary friars.

Pic 3: Model of the Aztec Templo Mayor, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 3: Model of the Aztec Templo Mayor, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The seven publications mentioned above are notable due to their attempts to identify and evaluate the contexts and distortions of these sources, distancing themselves from literal and naïve reading of the historical information.
However, no matter how rich the information provided by the documentary sources, it must always be compared with data obtained from archaeology and physical anthropology. Given that most of the historical information relative to Aztec sacrifice refers to the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, we quickly see the importance of material evidence recovered from this site during the excavations of the Templo Mayor Project between 1978 and 2007.
Among the discoveries made, the téchcatl, or stone upon which sacrificial victims were stretched as they were ritually killed, provides the most solid evidence of human sacrifice. Two of these stones were exhumed at the summit of one of the oldest stages [see pic 3] of the Templo Mayor (c. 1390).

Pic 4: Drawing of a sacrificial stone (‘chacmool’) found at the entrance to the chapel of the god of rain, Templo Mayor, phase II (c. 1390 CE)
Pic 4: Drawing of a sacrificial stone (‘chacmool’) found at the entrance to the chapel of the god of rain, Templo Mayor, phase II (c. 1390 CE) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘They were located at the entrances of the two chapels that guard the images of Huitzilopochtli (the sun god) and Tlaloc (the god of rain), where they were visible to the multitude that congregated at the base of the pyramid to attend ceremonies. Huitizilopochtli’s stone was a smooth basalt polyhedron that rose 50 centimeters from the floor. The stone of Tlaloc was a sculpture of the rain god (pic 4), lying on its back with a cylindrical altar fastened to his abdomen, which reached a height of 51 centimeters. The form and height of both stones assured their ability to function as tables for supporting the victims in the lumbar area, so that they could be bent backward in order to remove their hearts.

Pic 5: Flint knives found as part of excavations at the Templo Mayor (Templo Mayor Museum)
Pic 5: Flint knives found as part of excavations at the Templo Mayor (Templo Mayor Museum) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Sacrificial knives were similarly important (pic 5). A little more than one thousand knives have been recovered to date. These instruments are made of flint, a hard stone of great strength, which can be sharpened. The knives are lanceolated [shaped like a lance] with an acute point to penetrate the body before cutting out the heart. A number of them have an ornament representing monstrous faces converting them into personified symbols of the sacrificial instrument, though they are ineffective for performing the rite. These have been identified by specialists as mere votive objects [follow link below].

Pic 6: Skull-mask representing the God of Death, found at an offering of the Templo Mayor (TM Museum)
Pic 6: Skull-mask representing the God of Death, found at an offering of the Templo Mayor (TM Museum) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘We should also consider the remains of the victims that were buried by the Aztecs at the Templo Mayor and adjoining buildings. If we add up the data from four successive archaeological projects in the area, the total reaches 126 individuals. Among these are forty-two children - mainly males and suffering from anemia, parasitism, and gastrointestinal diseases -whose throats were slit in honour of the god of rain, and a forty-third child, killed by removal of the heart and dedicated to Huitzilopochtli. A second group is made up of forty-seven adult heads, almost all men, whose skulls and first vertebrae were found in the main architectural axes of the pyramid. Another group includes three skulls with perforations at the temples, which indicate that they come from tzompantli, the rack where trophy heads impaled on wooden poles, were exhibited (pic 2). Last, we must mention thirty-three skull-masks representing Mictlantecuhtli, god of death (pic 6); these consist of the facial portion of the skulls adorned with shells and pyrite as eyes, and with sacrificial knives to simulate the nose and tongue.

Pic 7: Mexican school students study the statue of the God of Death discovered - with traces of human blood - in the House of Eagles; Templo Mayor Museum
Pic 7: Mexican school students study the statue of the God of Death discovered - with traces of human blood - in the House of Eagles; Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Recently, traces of blood on the surfaces of divine images, altars, and stucco floors have been identified (pic 7). Thanks to modern techniques, significant concentrations of iron, albumin (the main protein in blood), and human hemoglobin were detected.
These and other pieces of evidence corroborate the graphic and textual information contained in the documentary sources of the sixteenth century, and they lead us to conclude, without doubt, that human sacrifice was a basic practice of the Aztec religion.

Pic 8: The Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, Teotihuacan
Pic 8: The Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, Teotihuacan (Click on image to enlarge)

‘At the same time, the evidence demonstrates that the numbers in the historical sources may be wildly exaggerated. There is quite a long way from the skeletal remains of the 126 individuals found so far in all the construction stages of the Templo Mayor and its thirteen adjoining buildings to the 80,400 victims mentioned in a couple of documents for one single event:the dedication of an expansion of the Templo Mayor in 1487. In this regard, it is interesting to add that the largest number of bodies associated with a religious venue in Central Mexico was recorded in the classical city of Teotihuacan and not in Tenochtitlan. The excavations done at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid (pic 8) brought to light that this religious building, which dates from 150 CE, was consecrated with the sacrifice of at least 137 individuals, almost all warriors. Recently, the remains of thirty-seven individuals were found inside the Moon Pyramid.’

Pic 9: Personified Aztec sacrificial knives, Templo Mayor Museum
Pic 9: Personified Aztec sacrificial knives, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Pix 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 & 9: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 4: drawing by Fernando Carrizosa Montfort, courtesy of Proyecto Templo Mayor, INAH, Mexico City
• Pic 8: photo by jschmeling (Wikipedia: Temple of the Feathered Serpent, Teotihuacan).

(Special thanks to Leonardo López Luján).

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