Store Banner Mobile

Store Banner Mobile

Illustration showing an Aztec skull rack.

New Research Shows that Gruesome Aztec Sacrifices included Locals of all Ages Too


A new study says the people sacrificed centuries ago by the Mexica (Aztec) at Tenochtitlan weren’t all prisoners of war killed just a short while after they were captured. Some of them, including women and children, may have lived locally for six years or more.

Historical sources say sacrifice victims were prisoners of war quickly slain. But Alan Berrera, who conducted the study, said some of the victims of the Mexica people were residents of the Valley of Mexico. The Mexica capital is located in present day Mexico City - Tenochtitlan.

The researchers took bones samples and teeth from the skulls of six people who’d apparently been sacrificed and analyzed them for strontium content.  Their remains were among those of the Great Temple sacrificial victims. The element strontium was used for the analysis because it concentrates in bones in varying amounts, depending on how much there is of it in the food and water of the locale where people live.

The team operated under the assumption that it was difficult for people of the time to travel around, and they must have lived in one place for long periods of time, says an article about the research in La Prensa. They concluded that the six people examined had lived among the Mexica for at least six years.

The researchers studied the remains at the isotope geochemistry lab of the National Autonomous University of Mexico's Geophysics Institute. They also found that the individuals had lived during the reigns of Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, Axayacatl, and Moctecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, who ruled between 1469 and 1521.

Tenochtitlan was the capital of the Aztec empire that flourished between 1325 and 1521 AD. It was built on an island in Lake Texcoco in central Mexico, and had a system of canals and causeways that supplied the hundreds of thousands of people who lived there. As Tenochtitlan expanded, it grew to become the largest and most powerful city in Mesoamerica. However, the city was largely destroyed in the 1520s by Spanish conquistadors.

A statue from the ruins of the Great Temple in what is now Mexico City.

A statue from the ruins of the Great Temple in what is now Mexico City. (Ulises.rubin/CC BY SA 3.0)

In related news, a researcher reported in 2014 that Aztec rulers, priests, and high ranking warriors practiced cannibalism. Evidence comes from fragments of human bones found in the Sacred Grounds of Tenochtitlan, Mexico, which show butchering marks and prolonged exposure to fire.

Archaeologist Gabino Lopez Arenas carried out an analysis on craniums, tibia, humerus bones and jaws located among the offerings of the Great Temple and in the surroundings of the historical center. The analysis revealed that the individuals had been decapitated and dismembered. It then appears that they were butchered and consumed “to absorb the divine force that held the body of the sacrificed,” said Arenas. “We observed that immediately after the victims were immolated their flesh was removed, this is confirmed because a great quantity of bones had cuts and alterations that were done while the bone was fresh and recently exposed to fire.”

Historical records and archaeological evidence suggests that cannibalism was not practiced by commoners and was definitely not part of the regular Aztec diet, Ancient Origins reported in 2014. Rather, it was reserved for the elite of society and usually took place as part of specific ceremonies.  For example, during celebrations related to the first month of the Mexica calendar (atlacahualo), several children were sacrificed to honor the gods of water or rain. They were then cannibalized by the priests.  Meanwhile, during the tlacaxipehualizli month, those sacrificed in the temple of the god Huitzilopochtli were consumed in the house of the warrior that captured them.

In other news from the Tenochtitlan golden era, in August 2015 researchers reported they found a trophy rack of human skulls that had once belonged to victims of human sacrifice.

In 2015 additional skulls were discovered at the Templo Mayor complex in Mexico.

In 2015 additional skulls were discovered at the Templo Mayor complex in Mexico. (Credit: Jesús Villaseca/Jornada.Unam.Mx)

The team of archaeologists involved in the discovery are from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History at the Templo Mayor complex, part of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.

The racks were known as “tzompantli” and they were used by the Aztecs to display the severed heads of sacrificial victims, which were exhibited for all to see on vertical posts. The skulls were suspended horizontally by the use of wooden poles pushed through the sides.

According to Eduardo Matos, the skull rack was a “show of might” used by the Aztecs to impress friends and enemies alike. The visitors were invited into the city, where they would be cowed into passivity by the grisly display of human heads, several of them in advanced stages of decomposition.

Such racks were often depicted in paintings and written texts from the early colonial period, however the 2015 discovery is different in that part of the platform where the heads were displayed was itself made from rows of skulls fixed together with mortar. The platform formed a rough circle with an open space in the center and the skulls looking inward into the open space. However, the archaeologists don’t yet know what the purpose of the central open space was.

When Aztec priests made human sacrifices to their gods, they would tear out the victim's heart and hold it in the air. Would the heart still be beating? This video has the answer: (Warning, graphic content):

Featured image: Illustration showing an Aztec skull rack. Códice Ramírez . Source: Public Domain

By Mark Miller



I've heard the Aztec civilization referred to as the third Reich of central America before... but the Spanish killed more people than Hitler did for just as corrupt a reason. The Spanish also believed that they literally ate the flesh of their god every Sunday too...

Ancestor's of your own culture / race may also have been involved in things that might be considered equally as terrible by todays standards. Just because those people engaged in those practices back then doesn't mean that their descendents of today would be too.

so then ... did cortez do a good thing in wiping out that psychotic civilization?

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

Next article