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Detail of skulls on the tzompantli (skull rack) found under Mexico City

Tzompantli, A Morbid Aztec Skull Rack, Unearthed In Mexico City


tzompantli was a wooden rack developed by several Mesoamerican civilizations to publicly display the skulls of war captives. According to Joel W. Palka’s 2007 book  Historical Dictionary of Mesoamerica, the tzompantli was a scaffold-like construction of poles on which heads and skulls were placed, and many similar skull towers have been discovered across Mesoamerica dating between 600–1250 AD.

In 2017 researchers discovered 650 skulls at a huey tzompantli (skull rack) which measures approximately five meters (16.4 ft.) in diameter. This morbid architectural feature is situated beneath the Templo Mayor at the ancient Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, below modern day Mexico City. According to The BBC, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have announced that the same team have now uncovered the facade and eastern side of the tower, and “119 human skulls of men, women and children.”

Section of the huey tzompantli (skull rack) found under Mexico City

Section of the huey tzompantli (skull rack) found under Mexico City. (INAH)

Tzompantli: Gifts for the Gods Or the Gods Themselves?

Reuters in Mexico City say this deathly feature was still active in the 1400s and that the “huge array of skulls” must have struck fear into the Spanish conquistadors when they captured the city under Hernán Cortés in 1521 AD. The Mexican Minister for culture, Alejandra Frausto, said in a INAH statement that the discovery of the huey tzompantli “is without doubt one of the most impressive archaeological finds of recent years in our country.” The minister also confirmed that Mexican archaeologists have now identified three separate construction phases at the tower, which was erected between 1486 and 1502 AD.

When this skull tower was first discovered in 2017 it came as something of a shock to Mexican anthropologists. Normally, the skulls of young male warriors were built into these skull racks, but in this instance they also unearthed the crania of women and children, suggesting researchers have for a long time misinterpreted human sacrifice in the Aztec Empire. In a Telegraph article, archaeologist Raúl Barrera says, “Although we can’t say how many of these individuals were warriors, perhaps some were captives destined for sacrificial ceremonies.” Furthermore, Barrera added that while researchers don’t currently know why all these women and children “were all made sacred,” maybe they were “turned into gifts for the gods or even personifications of deities themselves.”

The archaeologists found the crania of men, women, and children in the tower of skulls

The archaeologists found the crania of men, women, and children in the tower of skulls. (INAH)

Human Sacrifice: The Ultimate Tool of Social Control

The Aztec priesthood were a bloodthirsty lot who used to grab folk from the streets at their whim, from any social class, to service the gods. Generally captive warriors were laid on their backs on sacrificial stones and the priests used razor-sharp obsidian blades to cut through their abdomens before opening their chests and offering their still-beating hearts to the wanton war god Huitzilopochtli. According to an article on, when the life had drained from the sacrificial victims, their lifeless bodies were tossed down the steps of the towering Templo Mayor, and the heart, still beating, was held towards the sky to honor the god.

1587 illustration from the Codex Tovar. Left: A temple or pyramid surmounted by the images of two gods flanked by native Mexicans. Right: A tzompantli (Aztec skull rack)

1587 illustration from the Codex Tovar. Left: A temple or pyramid surmounted by the images of two gods flanked by native Mexicans. Right: A tzompantli (Aztec skull rack). (Public Domain)

While history generally records the arrival of the Spaniards in Central America as the beginning of the end for the Aztecs, it can be argued that they were already on the way out. Practices like human sacrifice destabilized their social strata and lodged distrust in the priesthood and noble classes. It is known that the Aztec state sponsored ritual practice ended about 10 years preceding the arrival of the Spaniards, but this rack of women and children skulls reopens these assumptions in several ways.

Warriors, Women, and Children - All the Same to Blade Wielding Aztec Priests

Not only does the huey tzompantli discovery challenge the accepted dates for when sacrifice ended in the Aztec Empire, but it also brings into question who was being slaughtered, and why. It is doubtful the women and children discovered in the Mexico City skull rack were sacrificed to the God of War, so perhaps they were added to the feature in response to the arrival of the devils from the east. Maybe this death tower was a fearsome reminder that the Biblical God of the conquistadors had no place in the shadowlands of the Americas, where not even women or children could escape being sacrificed to the pantheon.

Top Image: Detail of skulls on the tzompantli (skull rack) found under Mexico City. Source: INAH

By Ashley Cowie




Great article and comments made by Toms & Zucchini as well. As we all know, the ‘tzompantli’ have been found for many years in Mexico, revealing beyond doubt that the so-called, ‘Buck-skinned Utopian paradise’’ of pre-Columbian America (be it purportedly located within North, Central or South America), prior to the arrival of Europeans, is in reality a ‘fictional’ place, which exists only in the minds of some biased & prejudiced Native-American Activists or their White-Liberal counterparts. ‘Utopia’  derives from the Greek, meaning:  ‘NOT-A-PLACE), since none ever existed!  Naturally, there are many wonderful things to celebrate about Native-American history and culture, yet far too many individuals actually believe the ‘academic rhetoric’ or dribble. Labeling ‘Columbus Day,’ the ‘PC’ “Indigenous Peoples Day,’ DOES NOT eradicate the extreme acts of violence, cruelty, cannibalism, scalping, etc., carried out by indigenous tribes against one another (as revealed by history and actual archaeological evidence), long before any European came to the shores of the Western Hemisphere!!!

Not just the Aztecs, but the Mayan of Meso-America, along with the Paracas, Nazca & Wari cultures of South America, revealed their acute obsession with ‘decapitated heads’ or ‘trophy skulls,’ as well as ‘cannibalizing’ and torturing their enemies, as did the Moche or Mochica of ancient Peru. When Pizzaro arrived in Peru, a civil war was transpiring between Huascar & Atahualpa, the former having no problem disembowling his enemies, who also enjoyed flaying  ‘his foes,’ while having ‘the arms of the dead, flail against their own stomachs, whose skins had been made into human drums.’

Dominican friar Diego Duran, Andres de Tapia and others have been ridiculed for ‘lying or blowing out of proportion’ for racist purposes, the barbarity of the Aztecs & their allies. Bernal Diaz (the latter who served with Hernan Cortes, recording his account in the ‘Conquest of New Spain’), aptly describes the horrendous ‘blood-fest’ Aztec leader Guatemoc (or Cuauhtemoc) enjoyed, within his account of the ‘Siege and Capture of Mexico,’ offerning up to their Gods, “the hearts and blood” of the Spaniards, while displaying with pride their decapitated heads, “dripping with blood.”

Of course, other racial and ethnic groups throughout history have their own legacies of atrocities, but one would think from today’s academic circles, that ONLY Europeans committed such demonic deeds against one another or their enemies. Ethnic groups such as the Ottoman Turks, even created their own versions of the ‘tzompantli.’ As the result of the ‘’First Serbian Uprising’ in May of 1809 and after the ‘Battle of Cegar Hill,’ the Muslim Turks took the skulls of Christian Serbs, in order to create the famed ‘Skull Tower’ (or Chela Kula), which can still be seen today in the Serbian city of Nis (pronounced as ‘NISH’), some 15 feet high, which originally held 952 skulls arranged in fourteen rows!!!

Also, famous Medieval ‘terrorist’ or Mongol Muslim Conqueror, ‘Timur-the-Lame’ or Tamerlane, after sacking the ‘City of Isfahan’ in Iran (inhabited by fellow Muslims of another sect), had his forces erect some 28 towers of decapitated heads or skulls, amounting to about 42,000 individuals!!!

Keith Windschuttle’s ‘non-politically correct’ work, ‘The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past’ (1996), is a great work revealing the hypocrisy of the ‘Left’ or ‘Revisionist Historians,’ which has only increased since his pivotal monograph was published. Sites such as ‘Ancient Origins’ luckily continue to print for public consumption, ‘truth’ and not just Academic jargon & rhetoric, thus performing a service which is regretttably, rapidly disappearing within educational institutions across the Western World.

Dr. Dan


Something of a shock to Mexican anthropologists? I thought we believed all culture is relative today and these people did nothing wrong. Maybe if we are lucky, we will be able to re establish the cannibal paradise that existed before the white man ruined everything with their "civilization."

Hi All,

Reading this article I almost thought it was the story of Hercules and the monster man he encountered that constructed a temple solely out of victims Skulls.

This discovery Tzompantli with the skulls in Mesoamerica it's astounding.

Is there a carving of this war-god Huitzilopochtli in somewhere in Mexico, today.

How many war-gods were there in the Ancient World?

Alarming article I remember looking at Time Magazine covers with Historical moments captured and the Skull Tower reminds me of morbidly speaking The Killing Fields of Cambodia, & Rwanda only they weren't building massive architecture with Skulls.

I know nobody wishes to consider this possibility but, were these sacrifices to the various gods; hidden behind an kind of Genocide?

Because that's a lot of human skulls and the fact similar finds have been discovered in other places of Mesoamerica one can't help but, wonder if that was the case.

People say there's nothing New under the Sun.

Next time Everyone, Goodbye!

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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