When Spanish explorers first arrived in Mexico in the early 16th century and made contact with the Aztecs, they were taken aback by the culture’s grisly rituals and the constant bloodshed. The Aztec people believed in the continual need for regular offering of human blood to keep their deities appeased, and to meet this need, the Aztecs sacrificed thousands of people. To obtain victims for sacrifice, the Aztecs frequently waged war with other tribes, and captured victims alive for use in ritual execution and offerings to the gods.
At the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, human sacrifices were a routine spectacle. Prisoners and slaves are taken to the top of the steep steps of the pyramid, where they are held down upon a slab of stone by two or more priests, while another priest sliced open the victims’ chest and extracted the still beating heart, which was then held towards the sky in honor of the Sun-god. The lifeless bodies of those sacrificed were kicked down the stairs, to be either cremated or given to the warrior responsible for the capture of the victim. Parts of the body were sometimes cannibalized.
In The Conquest of New Spain, Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz gives several accounts of human sacrifices he witnessed at various cities within the Aztec empire. Díaz recounted that, after landing on the coast, they came across a temple dedicated to Tezcatlipoca. “That day they had sacrificed two boys, cutting open their chests and offering their blood and hearts to that accursed idol”, Díaz wrote. Arriving at Cholula, they found “cages of stout wooden bars … full of men and boys who were being fattened for the sacrifice at which their flesh would be eaten”. Díaz also describes the sacrifices at the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan:
They strike open the wretched Indian’s chest with flint knives and hastily tear out the palpitating heart which, with the blood, they present to the idols … They cut off the arms, thighs and head, eating the arms and thighs at ceremonial banquets. The head they hang up on a beam, and the body is … given to the beasts of prey.
Aztec ritual human sacrifice portrayed in the 16th century Codex Magliabechiano. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Conquistador Hernán Cortés, who led an expedition to Mexico in 1519 and conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, wrote of Aztec sacrifice:
They have a most horrid and abominable custom which truly ought to be punished and which until now we have seen in no other part, and this is that, whenever they wish to ask something of the idols, in order that their plea may find more acceptance, they take many girls and boys and even adults, and in the presence of these idols they open their chests while they are still alive and take out their hearts and entrails and burn them before the idols, offering the smoke as sacrifice. Some of us have seen this, and they say it is the most terrible and frightful thing they have ever witnessed.
Conquistadors also described a vast wall made entirely of human skulls at Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan, constructed by boring holes on either side of the skulls to allow the skulls to slide onto the wooden poles. Flanking this wall of skulls were two round towers also made of skulls. For centuries, historians had dismissed these 16th-century reports as wildly exaggerated propaganda meant to portray the Mesoamericans as savages and justify their colonization. But archaeological evidence suggests that human sacrifice was indeed a regular aspect of Aztec religious practices. In 2015, archeologists working at the Templo Mayor excavation site in Mexico City discovered a massive wall of skulls confirming the accounts of the Spanish chroniclers.
Depiction of a tzompantli in the 1587 Aztec manuscript, the Codex Tovar. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
This wall, known as the Huey Tzompantli, consisted of a massive masonry platform composed of “thirty long steps” measuring 60 meters in length by 30 meters wide at its summit. Atop of the aforementioned platform was erected an equally formidable wooden palisade and scaffolding consisting of between 60 and 70 massive uprights of timbers woven together with an impressive constellation of horizontal cross beams upon which were suspended the tens of thousands of decapitated human heads once impaled thereon. The wooden posts had long since decayed, and the skulls once displayed on them had shattered, or been purposely crushed by the conquistadors. The towers were nearly 5 meters in diameter and at least 1.7 meters tall.
Bernal Díaz states that the tzompantli contained “more than one hundred thousand” skulls, although modern historians estimates that the tzompantli contained no more than sixty thousand skulls— a ghastly edifice still.
Tzompantli (or skull rack) were common across several Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Toltec, the Maya and the Aztec, often erected to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. After Hernán Cortés’s expedition was forced to make their initial retreat from Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs erected a makeshift tzompantli to display the severed heads of men and horses they had captured from the invaders.
Graphics by C. Bickel and A. Cuadra for Science Mag
Human sacrifice occupied a particularly important place in Mesoamerica. Many of the region’s cultures, including the Maya and the Mexica, believed that human sacrifice was required to pay back the debt that was formed when the gods let themselves bleed to create the world. The Aztecs believed that if they didn’t continue to flow of human blood, the sun would cease to rise and the world would end.
Spanish historian Fray Diego de Durán reported at the re-consecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs sacrificed about 80,400 prisoners over the course of four days. According to the 16th century Aztec manuscript Codex Telleriano-Remensis, old Aztecs who talked with the missionaries told about a much lower figure—approximately 4,000 victims in total. Nevertheless, scores were killed, and it was this obsession with death that eventually sealed the Aztecs’ fate.
Aztec human sacrifice as depicted in Codex Tudela. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
After the Spanish conquistadors sieged Tenochtitlan in 1521, Hernán Cortés tore down the Templo Mayor and the tzompantli in front of it, paved over the ruins, and built what would become Mexico City. Templo Mayor would not be rediscovered until the early 20th century, but major excavations took place only in 1978–1982, after utility workers came across a massive stone disc depicting the nude dismembered body of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui.