Archaeological findings in recent years show that the conquistadors’ accounts of the anthropophagy of the civilisation that dominated central Mexico from the 14th to the 16th century were not mere war propaganda.

The other side of the black legend about the colonisation of the Americas by the Spanish is the idealisation of the pre-Columbian world, painted as an Eden in which the indigenous people lived in harmony with each other and with nature. The grandeur of Aztec culture, embodied in its monumental constructions, or Inca “socialism” were elements of a story that concealed the implacable domination of these empires over other ethnic groups, which they subjugated, exploited, plundered and, in some cases, devoured. Literally.

Parts of an Aztec tower formed by skulls from human sacrifices. Templo Mayor archaeological site in Mexico City (INAH).

“I heard that they used to cook for him (Montezuma) the meat of young boys… (…) but I know that certainly since our captain [Hernán Cortés] reprimanded him for the sacrifice and eating of human flesh, he has since ordered that no such delicacy be cooked for him”. The writer is Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Spanish conquistador, who in 1519, under the orders of Hernán Cortés, took part in the expedition that put an end to the Aztec Empire.

Other testimonies reported the existence of walls built with skulls in Tenochtitlán. “Outside the temple, and in front of the main gate, although more than a stone’s throw away, there was an ossuary of heads of men imprisoned in war and sacrificed with knives, which was like a theatre longer than wide, made of lime and stone with its steps, in which skulls with their teeth facing out were ingested between stone and stone”. This account by the chronicler Francisco López de Gómara, in Historia de las conquistas de Hernán Cortés, included the testimony of Andrés de Tapia and Gonzalo de Umbría, two of Cortés’ men, about the existence of this ossuary.

Stories like this were relativised or disqualified for suspicion of subjectivity and lack of material evidence until archaeological evidence confirmed them: in 2017, and after two years of excavations, Mexican archaeologists found part of these walls built with human skulls, in the place where the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlán was located, right in the centre of the current Mexican capital. The additional surprise was that, among these human bricks, there were several belonging to women and children.

Aztec walls of human skulls

Until then, it was said that Aztec human sacrifices were sporadic, that cannibalism was even more so, and that the wall of human remains, if it existed, consisted only of the heads of warriors captured in battle, and that the purpose of displaying them on a wall was to intimidate.

In recent years, the idealisation and panegyric of “native” cultures has deepened and, in this context, extemporaneous condemnations of Spanish cruelty have been made, reducing the entire colonisation enterprise to genocide and ignoring the culture and institutions exported to America and, more importantly, the process of mestizaje promoted from the outset by the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, and continued by their grandson, Charles I of Spain. A mestizaje that gave rise to the current Spanish-American nationalities. An almost exclusive feature of Spanish domination: if we look at the colonies owned by other European countries, we will see that miscegenation was almost non-existent there, because the personnel of the metropolis lived in isolation from the local population, when they did not dedicate themselves to capturing the natives to traffic them as slaves.

One current impact of these misrepresentations of the past is Spain’s refusal to commemorate, in 2019, the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortes, and indeed of the birth of Mexico. Instead, the president of that country, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, chose to commemorate this year the five centuries since the fall of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. this, in addition to his constant and absurd demand that Spain and the Church apologise for the conquest and colonisation, when in fact the Mexican nation emerged from that process.

Hernán Cortés: the construction of today’s Mexico begins with his arrival

In this endeavour, López Obrador engaged in a debate with the Argentine historian Marcelo Gullo, who has just published Madre Patria, a book that dismantles the black legend and is a bestseller in Spain. One of his main hypotheses is that Cortés did not conquer Mexico but liberated it from Aztec oppression; with only 700 men, he was nevertheless able to gather an army of 300,000 Indians belonging to the ethnic groups oppressed by Montezuma’s empire who joined his campaign.

The Mexican President criticised this hypothesis but had to admit that “several native peoples such as the Totonacs, the Tlaxcalans, the Otomi, the Texcoco” and others “helped Cortés”, although he added that “this fact should not serve to justify the massacres carried out by the conquistadors, nor should it detract from the cultural greatness of the conquered”. He also admitted that the idea “that Montezuma was a tyrant may be true”. “Nor should Cortés be seen as a demon, he was simply a man of power”, he said.

These admissions imply that his insistence on an extemporaneous and incomplete, to say the least, view of the conquest and his panegyric of Aztec culture are closer to imposture than conviction.

His latest witticism has been to rename the colonial period as “indigenous resistance”. “We are going to remember with pain and regret” the conquest because of the “tremendous violence it entailed”, he said on 12 August in reference to the fall of Tenochtitlán, which was in fact celebrated by most of the ethnic groups that populated the area.

On the other hand, as Marcelo Gullo warns, he makes the mistake of assimilating the history of the Aztecs with the history of Mexico, since the Aztecs were only one of the many ethnic groups that inhabited that territory. He quotes the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos who states that “the history of Mexico begins as an episode in the great Odyssey of the discovery and occupation of the New World”.

López Obrador rejected Marcelo Gullo’s thesis that Cortés did not conquer Mexico but liberated it from Aztec oppression.

“Before the arrival of the Spaniards”, says Vasconcelos, “Mexico did not exist as a nation; a multitude of tribes separated by rivers and mountains and by the deepest abyss of their three hundred dialects, inhabited the regions that today form the homeland. The Aztecs dominated just an area of the plateau…. (…) No national idea related the castes; on the contrary, the fiercest enmity fed the perpetual war, which only the Spanish conquest put an end to.

As for anthropophagy – a taboo subject for political correctness – Gullo quotes the American anthropologist Marvin Harris, who in Cannibals and Kings (1977) wrote: “Most notably, the Aztecs transformed human sacrifice from an occasional derivative of luck on the battlefield into a routine whereby not a day passed without someone not being laid out on the altars of the great temples such as those of Uitz Uopochtli and Tlaloc. Sacrifices were also celebrated in dozens of smaller temples that were reduced to what we might call neighbourhood chapels“.

Harris mentions the chance discovery of one of these chapels, “a low, circular structure about 20 feet in diameter”, discovered when the Mexican capital’s underground was being built. “It now stands, preserved behind glass, in one of the busiest stations. For the benefit of travellers, there is a plaque that says only that the ancient Mexicans were very religious, he says.

Gullo comments: “As that simple plaque shows if there is a people whose own history has been falsified, it is the people of Mexico. They are led to believe [that] they are all descended [from the Aztecs, and forget] that many of those who read that plaque are descended from the people the Aztecs captured for their human sacrifices”.

The first skull walls were found during the construction of the Mexico City underground, but the public is not told exactly what they are about.

If anything belies the virtues of empires like the Aztecs, it is precisely the adventure of Hernán Cortés, who could not have defeated Moctezuma without the cooperation of the ethnic groups subjugated by the Mexica, who saw the arrival of the Spaniards as an opportunity for emancipation.

One of the cruelest features of Aztec rule was human sacrifice. This was not unique to the Aztecs, but it was a characteristic of the way, extent and intensity of the practice, and the fact that the fruit of the human offerings to the gods went to the table of the Mexica emperor and his nobility.

Apocalypto, Mel Gibson’s film about the Mayans, was considered too crude in its scenes of human sacrifice, but the archaeological evidence tends to support it.

The descriptions of these sacrifices are shocking to read. As shocking as the scenes of human sacrifice in Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto, which earned him harsh criticism from detractors of the conquest. The film is about Mayan culture, but the modality was very similar to the Aztec: the extraction of the heart from the still-living victim to be offered to the god, then the plunging of the unfortunate victim over the steep edge of the pyramid, and finally the butchering of the “pieces” for distribution…

“After they had killed them and cut out their hearts, they carried the little steps, rolling down the steps; when they had reached the bottom, they cut off the heads and chopped them off with a stick, and the bodies they carried them to the houses they called calpul, where they distributed them for food”. This is what Fray Bernardino de Sahagún wrote in Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España. Sahagún was the first to study Aztec culture. He described in detail the ceremonies and religious calendar of the Aztecs. Many prisoners of war were held captive to be sacrificed on certain dates.

Sahagún continues: “After flaying (…) they took the bodies to the calpulco, where the owner of the captive had made his vow or promise; there they divided him up and sent Montezuma a thigh to eat, and the rest they divided among the other principals or relatives (…). They cooked that meat with corn, and gave each one a piece [in] a bowl or cajete, with its broth and cooked corn”.

Sacrifices were not limited to adults: “These sad children, before they were taken to be killed, were adorned with precious stones”, says Sahagún, “with rich feathers and with very curious and carved blankets and maxtles (…); and when the children were taken to the places where they were to be killed, if they went crying and shed many tears, those who saw them crying were happy because they said it was a sign that it would rain very soon.

The story of these “banquets” was long hidden behind the exaltation of pre-Columbian indigenous civilisations, in contrast to the story of the horrors committed by the Spanish and an alleged deliberate extermination of the indigenous population, This legend was created and spread by the Spanish Crown’s enemies and competitors – who coveted its vast overseas domains – and is today revived by Latin American populists who find it easier to confront the empires of a bygone era than to cut the Gordian knots that are holding back the development of their countries in the present.

On the website Ciencia Unam, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in a work entitled Human Sacrifices: Blood for the Gods, it is explained that the wall of skulls found by archaeologists in Tenochtitlán, called huey tzompantli, was “a civic-religious building where the skulls of the sacrificed were placed”. The heads were encased in tezontle, a volcanic stone from the region. “Huey tzompantli” means “great row of skulls”.

This photo shows the shape of the huey tzompantli. This is the one in the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, in Mexico City. © 2007-2008. Antoine Hubert.

“In the walls were embedded the heads of warriors and sacrificed slaves, chosen for the celebrations, says the article. “It is estimated that in the excavated part there are remains corresponding to around 1,000 people, but according to archaeologists, that would only be a third of the entire building.” But tzompantli have also been found in other areas of the country, although the largest would be the one in Tenochtitlan.

It is the largest archaeological evidence of the Aztecs’ practice of human sacrifice to date.

But now that they have to surrender to the evidence, many scholars are taking a benevolent view of these practices. One example is an article – El sacrificio humano entre los Mexicas (link in Spanish)- by researchers Alfredo López Austin and Leonardo López Luján, who warn: “…human sacrifice will be unintelligible to us if we do not take into account its location and its assembly as a piece of that great puzzle we call cosmovision. A simplistic perception of sacrifice as an isolated phenomenon will produce easy condemnation, even immediate repudiation of the practising people”.

Illustration of the Huey Tzompantli of the Templo Mayor in another Spanish codex from the early years of colonisation (Codex Ramirez).

These warnings could also apply to the worldview of the Spaniards, but we well know that this is not the case. The conquistadors are judged with present-day categories, without regard.

Another example of this benevolence is that of Fernando Anaya Monroy who, in an article entitled La antropofagia entre los antiguos mexicanos (link in Spanish), argues that the motives behind the pre-Columbian practice of anthropophagy must be clarified. He proposes “looking into” his country’s past, “not to judge it but to understand it”, which is all very well, except for the double standards. The Aborigines are justified as much as the Spaniards are condemned.

“We insist that, according to the source data, anthropophagy did exist among the ancient Indians, but that it was ritualistic in nature and did not constitute a daily custom and environment, says Anaya Monroy. A half-truth, as we shall see.

Image of the Codex Tudela, from the early days of colonisation.

Anthropophagy, he continues, “only symbolised the union of man with divinity”, and meat was to be eaten with the sense of communion (with divinity)”, he adds.

“The religious aspect was then an essential motive for the practice of anthropophagy among the ancient Indians; in the understanding that the dead [those of the Aztecs, it is understood, the others were food] were not the object of oblivion or contempt.

Remarkable tolerance towards the Aztec religion on the part of the same accusers of the Spanish evangelisation.

“Anthropophagy is thus presented, among the ancient Mexicans, as a fact which, rather than being judged, must be explained and understood, by entering into the cultural pattern in which it was carried out and without the prejudice of a strictly western vision.

Translation: the Spaniards, with their medieval mentality, did not understand the magical world of the indigenous people…

But it turns out that this anthropophagy, which according to today’s indigenists did not exist or was only sporadic and ritualistic, had to be prohibited by a Law of the Indies (XII of Title 1 of Book 1), dictated by Charles V in June 1523: “We order and command our Viceroys, Audiences, and Governors of the Indies, that [. …] expressly prohibit with severe penalties the idolatrous Indians and the eating of human flesh, even if it is of prisoners and those killed in war…”.

The human sacrifices of the Aztecs in the Codex Magliabechiano, Mexico 16th century

Now, Sahagun himself says that these human sacrifices were performed on a daily basis during the months of Tlacaxipehuliztili [March] and Tepeihuitl, [30 September to 19 October] dedicated respectively to the gods Xipe Totec and Tlaloc, and that the ceremonies included the practice of anthropophagy. In other words, they were not so sporadic.

The French anthropologist and historian Christian Duverger, who has researched Aztec sacrifices, wrote: “Aztec cannibalism was not invented by the Spaniards to justify their bloody conquest. Nor can it be disguised behind a mystical alibi, for it cannot be reduced to ritual anthropophagy […] No! Anthropophagy is part of Aztec reality and its practice is much more common and much more natural than it is sometimes presented.”

“Many historians, out of delicacy, omit to narrate how human sacrifices took place. Those who cultivate the black legend deliberately omit it, and others do not mention it simply because they are unlearned”, Gullo writes. But today, among the scientific evidence found, he says, are human skeletons executed by cardiectomy, with cut marks on the ribs, and decapitations.

A Spanish captive is dragged to the top of the pyramid by Aztec priests to be sacrificed. Illustration from The conquest of Mexico by William Hickling, 1796-1859.

According to the estimates of some historians, such as the American William Prescott, the number of victims immolated was around 20,000 per year. And Marvin Harrris points out that “although all other archaic and not so archaic states practised mass butchery and atrocities, none of them did so on the pretext that the heavenly princes had an uncontrollable desire to drink human blood”.

“The main source of food for the Aztec gods was prisoners of war”, adds Harris, “who were carried up the steps of the pyramids to the temples, taken by four priests, stretched face up on the stone altar, and cut open from side to side of the chest with an obsidian knife wielded by a fifth priest. The victim’s heart – usually described as still beating – was then torn out and burned as an offering. The body was rolled down the steps of the pyramid, which were deliberately made steep to serve this function.”

Harris then goes on to specify what the final fate of the bodies was: “As (Michael) Harner (of the New School) states, there is really no mystery as to what happened to the corpses since all the eyewitness accounts broadly agree: the victims were eaten.

There is certainly still a lot of research to be done and many ossuaries to be unearthed to establish more precisely the extent of this practice. But it is striking that those to whom the word genocide springs so easily whenever the Spanish conquest is mentioned do not apply it to the Aztecs with respect to the peoples they subjugated.

The same methodological, conceptual and, above all, temporal precautions that are suggested for the study of indigenous cultures should apply to the process of Spanish conquest and colonisation.

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