All  
Priest in Tenochtitlan Plucks the Heart from Human Sacrifice. Date: circa 1500. Credit:  Archivist / Adobe Stock

Secrets of Living Human Heart Extraction Revealed

Print

In the mid-16th century the hyper-violent forces of Spanish conquistadors burned, tortured, raped and spread diseases as they made their way across Mesoamerica in the name of their one god. Yet they recorded their distaste at indigenous sacrificial rituals in which people’s hearts were torn out of their chests while the victims were still alive.

All across Pre-Colombian Mesoamerica human sacrifices were performed to appease and honor the deities perceived as essential for community survival, but the brutal practice also assured the ruling classes maintained social power through intimidation and fear.

While many records exist detailing the ceremonial and ritual environments, little has been written about the executioners’ methods of sacrifice, until now. A new study published in Current Anthropology , by researchers Vera Tiesler and Guilhem Olivier, titled “ Open Chests and Broken Hearts: Ritual Sequences and Meanings of Human Heart Sacrifice in Mesoamerica ,” presents a comprehensive analysis of the specific instruments and medical techniques applied in human sacrifices during the Classic and Postclassic periods.

Reinterpreting Ancient Codices, Sacrificially

The two scientists adopted what they call an “interdisciplinary approach” to their study which accounted for the diversity in sacrificial rituals throughout Mesoamerica, and they told PHYS that they had to incorporate both “scientific and humanistic evidence” to gain new insights into the procedural elements and the religious implications of human sacrifice. The pair of researchers conducted an anatomical comparative analysis of skeletal evidence against historical sources and “over 200 instances of ceremonial heart extraction” found in ancient codices and they examined different types of chest fractures hoping to gather insights from the differences in entry wounds. Furthermore, they aimed to illustrate the sacrificial instrumentation used to open chests, that allowed for the removal of victim s pulsing heart’s.

Written descriptions of heart extraction and human sacrifices vary greatly and are very inconsistent with virtually no detailing of the actual positions of the chest extraction sites, but interpreting forensic data with ethnohistorical accounts, Tiesler and Olivier described three different heart extraction methods in their paper. The first method is known formally as “subdiaphragmatic thoracotomy” which meant cutting directly under the ribs; the second was an incision between two ribs (intercostal thoracotomy) and the third ritual incision allowed access the heart (transverse bilateral thoracotomy) with a horizontal severing of the sternum.

Priests of Tenochtitlan Sacrifice Victims to their Gods. Date: circa 1500. Credit: Archivist / Adobe Stock

Priests of Tenochtitlan Sacrifice Victims to their Gods. Date: circa 1500. Credit: Archivist / Adobe Stock

Living Food for The Gods

On a symbolic, iconographic and ritual level the paper also presents new observations as to how different indigenous groups interpreted the human body as source of vitalizing matter,” or food for the gods. Pulsing hearts and blood dripping veins were thought of as being imbued with divine sustenance and after the victims were ritually prepared over several days with increasing quantities of hallucinogens, their hearts were torn out and offered to solar gods and earth fertility goddesses, essentially mimicking the sacrifices that myths say were made by the chief deities during their creation of the universe.

In conclusion, the researchers say their new observations and data, including linguistic analysis of ancient Mesoamerican terminology, reinforces their papers key findings: that these bloodthirsty human sacrifice rites served cultures as “acts of obligation, reciprocation, and re-enactment.”

Watercolor painted by Diego Rivera in San Francisco, Calif. during the summer of 1931, originally commissioned to illustrate a never-published English translation of the Popol Vuh by John Weatherwax. Depicts the first humans making sacrifices to the god Tohil. underworld. (public domain)

Watercolor painted by Diego Rivera in San Francisco, Calif. during the summer of 1931, originally commissioned to illustrate a never-published English translation of the Popol Vuh by John Weatherwax. Depicts the first humans making sacrifices to the god Tohil. underworld. (public domain)

Pulsing Hearts Were Only Divine Canapés

While this new paper greatly focuses on “heart extraction”, this was by no means the only way indigenous Mesoamerican cultures dealt with captured enemy warriors the invading Spanish. Hernán Cortés, the famous conquistador who led the invasion of Mexico in 1520 AD, was a chronicler of his own missions and he recorded that a 120 person Spanish convoy including women, children and horses was captured by the Acolhuas tribe that same year, and after being imprisoned for several months they were “sacrificed and eaten”, according to Mexicos National Institute of Anthropology and History in a 2015 archaeological announcement.

Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, told the Guardian in 2015 that the Acolhuas sacrificed humans “in honor of the serpentine fertility god  Quetzalcoatl, the jaguar god  Tezcatlipoca and the aquiline warrior god  Huitzilopochtli." Archaeologists excavating at an Acolhuas settlement discovered clay figurines of “blacks and Europeans, that were then intentionally decapitated”. As if months of torture ending in decapitation wasn’t message enough to deter Cortés’ Spanish forces advancing further inland, the flesh was cleaved from the victims’ bones and eaten. Archaeologists know that some of the human remains had been mounted around the slaughter site, “as on  a bone rack of skulls  that later greeted the avenging Spaniards sent by Cortés

Top image: Priest in Tenochtitlan Plucks the Heart from Human Sacrifice. Date: circa 1500. Credit:   Archivist / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

Next article