Archaeology: Brutal sacrifice systems of the Aztecs – ‘Death was just the start’

Lost Pyramids of the Aztecs: Historian on ‘gruesome sacrifices’

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Last month marked 500 years since the fall of the Aztec Empire. Centred in Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, the Aztecs built an enormous city in the middle of a lake after seeing an eagle with a snake in its beak perched atop a cactus – a sign from the Gods that the site was where their city was destined to be. The Empire crumbled under a combination of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés’ men, and the diseases they brought with them. Yet, when Cortés and his men arrived in the Aztec capital, they witnessed an especially gruesome ceremony.

Aztec priests were sacrificing humans and offering their organs to the gods.

Historians had previously dismissed these reports as wildly exaggerated as a means of justifying the murder of Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, and the enslavement of his people.

But discoveries in 2015 and 2018 at the Templo Mayor, the main Aztec temple in Tenochtitlan, site in modern-day Mexico City, revealed proof of widespread human sacrifice.

The discoveries revealed some of the reports from other Spanish conquistadors to be true.

Andres de Tapia, one of the conquistadors, had previously described two rounded towers on either side of the temple made entirely of human skulls. 

READ MORE: Mystery illness killing dozens of children – scientists scramble

Aztec sacrifice ritual

The Aztecs sacrificed up to 20,000 people every year. (Image: CHANNEL 4)

Five groundbreaking archaeological discoveries.

The five most groundbreaking archaeological discoveries. (Image: Express Newspapers)

Between them lie a wooden rack with thousands more skulls, with holes on either side to allow the skulls to slide onto the wooden poles.

Channel 4 documentary ‘Lost Pyramids of the Aztecs’ explained the brutal sacrifice ceremonies that took place.

Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock is the UK’s leading Aztec historian.

She was looking at the Florentine Codex, which documents the culture and life the Aztec people lived through words and illustrations from native artists.

It has been described as “one of the most remarkable accounts of a non-Western culture ever composed”, and was declared a World Heritage by UNESCO in 2015.

Templo Mayor sketch

The sacrifices were deemed a divine necessity. (Image: CHANNEL 4)

Dr Pennock said: “This paints a really excellent picture of how human sacrifice was practised in an everyday way in Aztec culture.

“You would have five priests – one holding each limb, and the person would be stretched back over a sacrificial stone.

“In the middle you can see another priest is taking the heart out.”

The documentary’s narrator went one step further, detailing the specifics of the ceremony.

She said: “The victim, usually a prisoner of war or a criminal, would be led up the steps to the temple.

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Skulls carved into rock.

Discoveries at Calixtlahuaca offered an insight into what happened to the victims. (Image: CHANNEL 4)

Thousands of skulls

Thousands of skulls were placed on wooden racks outside Templo Mayor. (Image: CHANNEL 4)

“Aztec priests would slice open the victim’s chest, cut out their still beating heart, and offer it to the gods.

“It’s estimated the Aztecs may have sacrificed over 20,000 men, women and children every year.

“What seems gruesome now was a divine necessity to the Aztecs.”

For the Aztec people, sacrifice kept the gods happy and ensured the rising of the sun each morning.

According to history.com, DNA tests from the recovered victims at the Templo Mayor site show that a large number of those sacrificed were outsiders, likely rival soldiers or slaves.

Tenochtitlan: Expert reveals how Aztecs built monuments

Perhaps surprisingly, many were willing to be sacrificed. Giving your heart to Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec sun and war god, guaranteed a ticket to the blessed afterlife in the god’s army, fighting against the forces of darkness.

Chillingly, the narrator added: “Death was just the start of the victim’s role in the ritual.”

Archaeologists in Calixtlahuaca, a city conquered and rebuilt by the Aztecs at about 1476 AD, have found clues around what happened to the bodies of those sacrificed.

Carmen Carvajal, a Mexican archaeologist, said: “Here we have the representation of skulls made of tezontle stone.”

These reveal the gory truth of where the victims’ bodies would end up.

She continued: “They had to cut off the head, and make a hole in the temples to be able to insert a stick there.

“Then they were placed on masts that were displayed in the square in front of Templo Mayor.”

The skulls were seen as a display of Aztec power, and to terrify enemies – as proven by the reports from the Spanish conquistadors.

Arguably the most shocking discovery of all suggests the Aztecs practised some form of ritual cannibalism.

Archaeologists have identified butcher marks on the bones of human remains in Aztec sites, while illustrations from the time depict body parts being cooked in large pots.

Harry Byrne

Harry Byrne

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