Model of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan

Sacrificial gifts found at Aztec Temple in Mexico feature a trove of diverse species

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One of the great archaeological sites in Mexico is the sprawling ancient city of Tenochtitlan, religious center and capital of the Aztec civilization. Templo Mayor (The Great Temple) was a huge pyramid which served as its central ceremonial focus. It was a temple built to honor gods, and researchers have discovered sacrificial offerings that demonstrate the great economic reach of the Aztec empire and the dedication to their deities.

Past Horizons reports that offerings have been found at the base of an immense statue of Tlaltecuhtli, the giant earth goddess, who possessed both feminine and masculine attributes. The most elaborate and largest trove of these sacrificial gifts found so far is called Offering 126. It is comprised of almost 4,000 organic remains, the majority being marine mollusks. After examination researchers learned that the mollusks were identified as 111 different species.

Offering 126 from Templo Mayor, Mexico.

Offering 126 from Templo Mayor, Mexico. Credit: INAH

Past Horizons writes, “40 of them [came] from the Atlantic, 66 from the Pacific, three found on both coasts and two from rivers.” Apparently not randomly collected, this diversity of species were purposefully retrieved from far-away places and challenging locations. Various mollusks and shells were sourced from Florida, the West Indies, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, and all along the western coast stretching from California to Ecuador.

Tlaltecuhtli stone found in 2006, Templo Mayor, Mexico

Tlaltecuhtli stone found in 2006, Templo Mayor, Mexico. Protoplasma Kid/WikimediaCommons.

Analysis of the shells found that they were mostly collected from beaches, but some animals were still alive when harvested for the special purpose. Particular species of the marine creatures could only have been accessed through deep underwater dives approximately 15 meters (49 feet) down, and yet others were gained through trade systems which spanned the empire.

Belem Zúñiga Arellano, biologist and researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) tells Past Horizons, “ This preponderance of species suggests on the one hand an expansion of the Aztec Empire during the reign of Ahuizotl, when he conquered populations of the Pacific coast, in the current states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. On the other hand, it also refers to trade relations with populations established to the south and the Caribbean .”

Belem Zúñiga says Offering 126’s unique quality of being largely non-local, difficult to obtain objects reveals the affluence of the Aztec at the time, that they would use precious items as sacrifice rather than a source of food, tools, or ornaments. He notes,

they used species that were attributed to ritual qualities, so it is not surprising that they invested time and effort in obtaining molluscs from remote locations such as the Yucatan peninsula and the coasts of Sinaloa and Sonora . The Aztec priests also put a lot of time and effort into the preparation and implementation of oblations that emphasised the diverse origins of the molluscs, aspects that also speak of the military and economic might of the Empire .

In previous excavations archaeologists have found bones and remains of animals left as offerings which were made up of over 400 different species. National Geographic notes the long list of animals that were gifted to the gods at Templo Mayor, including: fish, shellfish, herons, hummingbirds, owls, turtles, snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and big mammals – jaguars, pumas and wolves, to name only a few examples.

Experts feel the marine creatures held great symbolic meaning as denizens of the underworld, represented by a watery world in Aztec tradition.

Altar of the toads as symbols of water in Aztec culture. Wikimedia

Altar of the toads as symbols of water in Aztec culture. Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Templo Mayor and Tenochtitlan was ultimately destroyed by Cortés and the Spanish Conquistadors. Monuments and temples were looted and razed, and a Mediterranean-style city was built atop the ruins (now the historic downtown of Mexico City). Fortunately, modern archaeological excavations reveal new, precious finds which continue to shed light on the culture and traditions of the ancient Aztec civilization.

Featured Image: Model of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan showing the various stages as it was enlarged over time. The temple was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, god of war, and Tlaloc, god of agriculture and rain. Staircases led to the individual shrines. The center spire was in honor of the winged god Quetzalcoat / Ehecatl. Credit: Wolfgang Sauber/ Creative Commons: Attribution-ShareAlike

By Liz Leafloor


Agreed wholeheartedly. They were anything but barbaric. One look at Puma Punka should convince any misinformed westerner that these cultures were masters of stone masonry exceeding Egypt by leagues. The world should also be grateful for corn or potatoes from these great people. They were building pyramids and plotting the precession of the Equinoxes when the Europeans were still worshiping trees.

Roberto Peron's picture

The Aztec Empire was extensive as was that of the Mayans and the Toltec.  Where I live in the American Southwest there are giant rocks that look like frogs and other things and I believe they were once carved sculptures only now they have suffered erosion due to weather events.  Many of the tribes I have spoken with extensively tell stories of not only trading with these great empires but, at times, having been forced into subjection by them for periods of time.  Sadly, academia focuses on the blood sacrifices of the Aztecs painting them as barbarians and cannibals.  That was true at the end of their empire but was not always the case.  At one time the Aztecs were a high and very civilized civilization just as were the Mayans, Toltecs, and Inca, et al that rivaled those civilizations of Europe and China.  I have spent a lot of time at the ruins of these people and they speak of anything BUT barbaric!  Time to wake up and smell the coffee and STOP painting Mesoamerican cultures as barbarians.  They were not!


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