Fascinating archaeological find in Mexico City sheds new light on the roots of the major civilization to our south, the Aztecs

It is all too easy for Americans to forget about the major civilization that existed on our continent prior to the arrival of Columbus.  The Aztecs, whose capital became Mexico City, had a vast empire based on tribute from conquered peoples.   

When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his army arrived in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan in 1519, that city is estimated by a leading historian of the period to have had a population over 200,000, which would make it one of the largest cities in the world at the time.  It was impressive to the Spaniards.  So was the evident brutality, as evidenced by the Huey Tzompantli, a collection of racks displaying what were assumed to be the skulls of enemy warriors captured and executed.

But new archaeology has thrown that surmise into doubt.  Reuters reports:

A tower of human skulls unearthed beneath the heart of Mexico City has raised new questions about the culture of sacrifice in the Aztec Empire after crania of women and children surfaced among the hundreds embedded in the forbidding structure.

Archaeologists have found more than 650 skulls caked in lime and thousands of fragments in the cylindrical edifice near the site of the Templo Mayor, one of the main temples in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, which later became Mexico City.

The tower is believed to form part of the Huey Tzompantli, a massive array of skulls that struck fear into the Spanish conquistadores when they captured the city under Hernan Cortes, and mentioned the structure in contemporary accounts.

Historians relate how the severed heads of captured warriors adorned tzompantli, or skull racks, found in a number of Mesoamerican cultures before the Spanish conquest.  

But those displays uncovered in the heart of the capital city weren't just warriors:

"We were expecting just men, obviously young men, as warriors would be, and the thing about the women and children is that you'd think they wouldn't be going to war," said Rodrigo Bolanos, a biological anthropologist investigating the find.

"Something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new, a first in the Huey Tzompantli," he added.


Photo credit: Henry Romero/Reuters

Raul Barrera, one of the archaeologists working at the site alongside the huge Metropolitan Cathedral built over the Templo Mayor, said the skulls would have been set in the tower after they had stood on public display on the tzompantli.

Roughly six meters in diameter, the tower stood on the corner of the chapel of Huitzilopochtli, Aztec god of the sun, war and human sacrifice. Its base has yet to be unearthed.

Human sacrifice was the basis of the spiritual life of this civilization – even of helpless women and children, with a tower of their skulls in the heart of the capital.

No matter the changes of the last half-millennium, civilizations change slowly, and their roots matter.

Hat tip: John McMahon

It is all too easy for Americans to forget about the major civilization that existed on our continent prior to the arrival of Columbus.  The Aztecs, whose capital became Mexico City, had a vast empire based on tribute from conquered peoples.   

When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his army arrived in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan in 1519, that city is estimated by a leading historian of the period to have had a population over 200,000, which would make it one of the largest cities in the world at the time.  It was impressive to the Spaniards.  So was the evident brutality, as evidenced by the Huey Tzompantli, a collection of racks displaying what were assumed to be the skulls of enemy warriors captured and executed.

But new archaeology has thrown that surmise into doubt.  Reuters reports:

A tower of human skulls unearthed beneath the heart of Mexico City has raised new questions about the culture of sacrifice in the Aztec Empire after crania of women and children surfaced among the hundreds embedded in the forbidding structure.

Archaeologists have found more than 650 skulls caked in lime and thousands of fragments in the cylindrical edifice near the site of the Templo Mayor, one of the main temples in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, which later became Mexico City.

The tower is believed to form part of the Huey Tzompantli, a massive array of skulls that struck fear into the Spanish conquistadores when they captured the city under Hernan Cortes, and mentioned the structure in contemporary accounts.

Historians relate how the severed heads of captured warriors adorned tzompantli, or skull racks, found in a number of Mesoamerican cultures before the Spanish conquest.  

But those displays uncovered in the heart of the capital city weren't just warriors:

"We were expecting just men, obviously young men, as warriors would be, and the thing about the women and children is that you'd think they wouldn't be going to war," said Rodrigo Bolanos, a biological anthropologist investigating the find.

"Something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new, a first in the Huey Tzompantli," he added.


Photo credit: Henry Romero/Reuters

Raul Barrera, one of the archaeologists working at the site alongside the huge Metropolitan Cathedral built over the Templo Mayor, said the skulls would have been set in the tower after they had stood on public display on the tzompantli.

Roughly six meters in diameter, the tower stood on the corner of the chapel of Huitzilopochtli, Aztec god of the sun, war and human sacrifice. Its base has yet to be unearthed.

Human sacrifice was the basis of the spiritual life of this civilization – even of helpless women and children, with a tower of their skulls in the heart of the capital.

No matter the changes of the last half-millennium, civilizations change slowly, and their roots matter.

Hat tip: John McMahon

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