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It is well-known that human sacrifice occupied a very important place in the history of Mesoamerican civilizations. However, despite this, experts were not sure to what extent human sacrifice developed within the ancient Aztec culture.
“[Mexica priests] had an extremely impressive anatomical knowledge, which was passed down from generation to generation,” says archaeologist Chávez Balderas, in an article for Science.
“All premodern societies make some kind of offering,” said one of the researchers. “And in many societies, if not all, the most valuable sacrifice is human life.” However, the Aztecs took human sacrifice to the extreme.
Some Spanish conquistadors wrote about the tzompantli and its towers, suggesting that the rack alone contained 130,000 human skulls.
The capital city of the ancient Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan, a city whose history is the result of a mixture of historical facts and legends.
The legend of the foundation of the city suggests that Tenochtitlan was populated by a group of Nahua migrant tribes from Aztlán, a place whose precise location is unknown.
Now, experts from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) of Mexico studied hundreds of skulls discovered in Mexico City, where the sacred city Tenochtitlan lies.
The Aztecs believed that human sacrifices fed the gods and ensured the perpetuity of humanity.
The journal Science published an update on the research on the key sacrifice rituals for the spiritual world of the Aztec people, which was carried out through the study of skulls found in 2015 under a colonial-era house on Guatemala Street, located just behind the Cathedral of Mexico City.
The discovery revealed startling details.
The findings indicate that the Aztecs had a human sacrifice industry so massive that it can not be compared to any other in the history of the world.
The Aztec culture, which developed between the 14th and 16th centuries, carried out human sacrifices and gave a special post-mortem treatment to the corpses of those who had been sacrificed.
According to Science, priests worked with the body in a space specifically dedicated to rituals, in order to guarantee the life and human regeneration.
“Priests carried the body to another ritual space, where they laid it face-up. Armed with years of practice, detailed anatomical knowledge, and obsidian blades sharper than today’s surgical steel, they made an incision in the thin space between two vertebrae in the neck, expertly decapitating the body. Using their sharp blades, the priests deftly cut away the skin and muscles of the face, reducing it to a skull, explains the article published in Science.”
Eventually, the skulls gathered from the sacrificed people were destined to be part of the tzompantli of Tenochtitlan: a kind of altar composed of huge shelves of skulls built in front of the Templo Mayor; a pyramid with two temples on top, one dedicated to the god of war, Huitzilopochtli, and the other to the god of rain, Tlaloc.
According to the article in Science, the Aztecs built the tzompantli between 1325 and 1521, in seven “phases,” each corresponding to the reign of a king.
“Each phase was built on and around the previous ones, incorporating the history of the Templo Mayor within it.“
The Tzompantli of Tenochtitlan was huge.
The size and space of the holes in the skulls allowed experts from INAH to estimate the size of the tzompantli: 35 meters long, 12 to 14 meters wide, probably four or five meters high.
After months or years under the sun and rain, the skulls would begin to deteriorate, losing teeth or even the jaw.
“The priests would then remove the skull and turn it into a mask and use it as an offering, or use mortar to add it to the two skull towers that flanked the tzompantli,” explains the article.
Some Spanish conquistadors wrote about the tzompantli and its towers and estimated that a single shelf could hold up to 130,000 skulls.
Interestingly, archaeologists believe that the tower of skulls product of the present study has a twin altar located somewhere nearby, but they still have to find it.