Although there is universal agreement that human sacrifice and cannibalism were practised by some Mesoamerican societies, historians disagree over its extent.
In the Aztec Empire, which flourished in the 14th century until its collapse in 1519, it is generally accepted that human sacrifice was a part of Aztec culture – even an integral part of the Aztec religion.
Here are 10 facts about ritual human sacrifice in the Aztec Empire.
1. It was first recorded by the Spanish colonists
Documentation of Aztec human sacrifice and cannibalism mainly dates from the period after the Spanish conquest. When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521, he described seeing a sacrificial ceremony where priests sliced open the chests of sacrificial victims.
The Mesoamerican ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagun included an illustration of an Aztec being cooked in his 16th century study, Historia general.
Many scholars have cautioned against such claims, dismissing the 16th century reports as propaganda used to justify the destruction of Tenochtitlan and the enslavement of the Aztec people.
2. It is supported by archaeological evidence
In 2015 and 2018, archaeologists at the Templo Mayor excavation site in Mexico City discovered proof of widespread human sacrifice among the Aztecs. Researchers studying human bones found in Tenochtitlan found that the individuals had been decapitated and dismembered.
The analysis suggested that the victims that been butchered and consumed, and that their flesh was removed immediately after immolation. Illustrations in temple murals and stone carvings have also been found to depict scenes of ritual human sacrifice.
3. It had spiritual and religious significance
According to Aztec mythology, the sun god Huitzilopochtli required constant nourishment in the form of human blood to prevent the rise of darkness and the end of the world. The serpentine fertility god Quetzalcoatl and the jaguar god Tezcatlipoca both also required human sacrifice.
Aztec ideology dictated that how an individual fared in the afterlife depended on them being either sacrificed to the gods or killed in battle. In contrast, a person who died of disease went to the lowest level of the underworld, Mictlan.
The historian Ortiz de Montellano argued that because sacrificial victims were sacred, “eating their flesh was the act of eating the god itself”. The ritual was therefore a “gesture of thanks and reciprocity to the gods.”
4. Many victims were willingly sacrificed
Difficult as it might be to imagine, the Aztecs would volunteer to be sacrificed, believing it to be the pinnacle of nobility and honour. Prisoners of war were also favoured as victims – the expanding Aztec Empire of the 15th and 16th centuries saw human sacrifice as an act of intimidation.
In 1520, a group of Spanish conquistadors, women, children and horses were captured by local people, known as the Acolhauas, near the major Aztec city of Tetzcoco.
The prisoners were kept in ad hoc cells and, over the course of the following weeks, killed and cannibalised in ritual ceremonies. DNA tests of victims from the Templo Mayor site indicated that the majority were outsiders, most likely captured enemy soldiers or slaves.
5. It was reserved for special occasions
Historians generally believe that cannibalism was not practised by commoners and was not part of the regular Aztec diet. Instead, ritual cannibalism and human sacrifice took place as part of specific ceremonies.
During festivals of the Aztec calendar, sacrificial victims would be adorned to appear as a god. After they were decapitated, the bodies of the victims would be gifted to noblemen and important members of the community.
16th century illustrations show body parts being cooked in large pots. The blood would be kept by the priests, used to mix with maize to create a dough that would be shaped as an effigy of the god, baked and then given as food to celebrants at the festival.
6. It was an act of thanksgiving
Large and small scales of human sacrifice were made throughout the year to coincide with important calendar dates to use for dedicating temples, reversing drought and combating famine.
The greatest amount of cannibalism coincided with times of harvest. In Aztec mythology, the fertility goddess Tonacacihuatl – meaning “Lady of Our Food” or “Lady of Our Flesh” – was worshipped for peopling the earth and making it fruitful.
The husking of the corn was perceived by the Aztec as the same act as the tearing out of a sacrificial victim’s heart – both using the obsidian blade that was Tonacacihuatl’s symbol.
7. The heart would be sliced out first
The choice method of human sacrifice was the removal of the heart by an Aztec priest using a sharp obsidian blade, at the top of a pyramid or temple. The victim would then be kicked or thrown downwards, so that their blood would be spilled across the steps of the pyramid.
Once the body reached the bottom of the steps, it would be decapitated, dismembered and distributed. Victims were also sometimes shot full of arrows, stoned, crushed, clawed, sliced, skinned or buried alive.
8. The victims included women and children
Different sacrificial victims were needed for different gods. While warriors were sacrificed to the gods of war, women and children would also be used for other forms of worship. Children were particularly selected for rain deities, and it was believed that they were especially pleasing to the gods of water and rain, such as Tlaloc.
During celebrations relating to the first month of the Mexica calendar, atlacahualo, several children would be sacrificed to honour the gods. They would then be cannibalised by priests.
At Tenochtitlan, the remains of more than 40 children were found at a site surrounding the pyramid of Tlaloc. It is also believed that child victims would be tortured before being sacrificed, as the tears of innocent children were particularly favoured by the rain god.
9. The remains would be prominently displayed
The Spanish conquistador Andrés de Tapia described seeing two rounded towers flanking the Temple Mayor consisting entirely of human skulls. And between them, a towering wooden rack displaying thousands of skulls with bored holes on each side to allow the skulls to slide onto wooden poles.
The 2015 archaeological study of the site included the trophy rack of sacrificed human skulls, known as tzompantli. According to the archaeologist Eduardo Matos, these displays were a “show of might” and that friends and enemies would be invited into the Aztec city to see the skull racks
10. It may have been used to combat protein deficiency
Some historians believe that the Aztecs consumed human meat because their dietary environment lacked sufficient protein. The historian Michael Harner argued that the increasing Aztec population, decreasing amount of wild game, and absence of domesticated animals, drove the Aztec people to crave meat.
All available fish and water fowl would have been luxuries reserved for the wealthy, and the poor would have only had access to insects and rodents.