Section of skulls at the tzompantli found near the Templo Mayor, Mexico City

Gruesome Remains of Aztec Skull Tower Discovered in Mexico Include Women and Children

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Archaeologists have uncovered a tower of human skulls beneath the heart of Mexico City. The new find has given birth to new questions about the culture of sacrifice in the Aztec Empire after numerous skulls of both women and children were found among the hundreds embedded in the ominous building. Previous historical reports that the heads stacked were those of captured warriors are now in serious doubt as an explanation for the new findings is sought.

More than 650 Skulls Unearthed in Mexico City

A team of archaeologists has unearthed 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 most important temples in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, later to became Mexico City. The tower is thought to be part of the Huey Tzompantli, an immense array of skulls that intimidated the Spanish conquistadores when they conquered the city under Hernan Cortes.

An archaeologist from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), extracts skulls at the site where more than 650 skulls have been uncovered so far

An archaeologist from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), extracts skulls at the site where more than 650 skulls have been uncovered so far (Youtube Screenshot)

Nearly six meters in diameter, the tower stood on the corner of the chapel of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of the sun, war and human sacrifice. While its base has yet to be uncovered, one of the archaeologists working at the site, named Raul Barrera, told Reuters that the skulls would have been set in the tower after they had stood on public display on the “tzompantli.”  Barrera also added that the tower was undoubtedly one of the skull edifices mentioned by Andres de Tapia, a Spanish soldier who accompanied Cortes in the 1521 conquest of Mexico. Indeed, in his account of the campaign, de Tapia recorded counting thousands of skulls at what became known as the Huey Tzompantli.

The Creepy History of “Tzompantli”

As Dhwty reports in a previous Ancient Origins article, a skull rack, known also as Tzompantli in the Nahuatl language, is an object documented to have been used in several Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Aztecs, the Toltecs, and the Mayas. Skull racks are recorded to have been used by these civilizations to display human skulls. Depictions of skull racks can be found in paintings and in written descriptions from the early colonial period. Several types of skull racks have also been discovered during archaeological excavations over the years.

A tzompantli is illustrated to the right of a depiction of an Aztec temple.

A tzompantli is illustrated to the right of a depiction of an Aztec temple. ( Public Domain )

Skull racks are recorded to have been built throughout Mesoamerica between the 7 th and 16 th centuries AD and it is commonly accepted that skull racks displayed the heads belonging to victims of human sacrifice. Apart from this group, war captives who were executed also had their heads cut off and displayed on skull racks. In the case of the Aztecs, it has been suggested that this was a way that they could display their military prowess. Additionally, such structures were erected by the Aztecs as a tribute to their gods, and was also intended to instill fear into the hearts of any rivals visiting their city.

Skull racks have also been mentioned by the Spanish who encountered and colonized the Aztecs. A Dominican friar by the name of Diego Duran, for example, wrote that more than 80,000 people were sacrificed to celebrate the dedication of the Great Temple of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The heads of these victims were displayed on a skull rack, and were replaced regularly with fresh ones after the sacrifices were carried out.

A selection of the 676 skulls that have been found so far

A selection of the 676 skulls that have been found so far (Youtube Screenshot)

Newly Discovered Tower of Skulls Reveals Previously Unknown Information 

Back to 2017, however, the archaeological excavation in the bowels of old Mexico City that launched in 2015 raises new questions that puzzle historians and archaeologists alike, "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," Rodrigo Bolanos, a biological anthropologist examining the find, told Reuters . And adds, "Something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new, a first in the Huey Tzompantli.”

Ultimately, Barrera said that the number of the skulls will definitely rise as excavations will go on. It remains to be revealed just how many women and children were sacrificed along with warriors.

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