“The dismal drum of Huichilobos sounded again, accompanied by conches, horns, and trumpet-like instruments. It was a terrifying sound, and when we looked at the tall cue (temple-pyramid) from which it came we saw our comrades who had been captured in Cortes’ defeat being dragged up the steps to be sacrificed. When they had haled them up to a small platform in front of the shrine where they kept their accursed idols we saw them put plums on the heads of many of them; and then they made them dance with a sort of fan in front of Huichilobos.
Then after they had danced the papas (Aztec priests) laid them down on their backs on some narrow stones of sacrifice and, cutting open their chests, drew out their palpitating hearts which they offered to the idols before them. Then they kicked the bodies down the steps, and the Indian butchers who were waiting below cut off their arms and legs and flayed their faces, which they afterwards prepared like glove leather, with their beards on, and kept for their drunken festivals. Then they ate their flesh with a sauce of peppers and tomatoes.” -Spanish Conquistador, Bernal Diaz (The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice by Michael Harner (1977:46-50))
The Aztecs were a tribe in central Mexico during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. They were located in Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, on an island in Lake Texcoco. The Aztec community was highly advanced for their time period in things such as architecture and mathematics. They developed a complex calendar, irrigation systems, exquisite art, advanced agriculture, canals used in transportation, chinampas (floating gardens), and were the first civilization to require their children to go to school. Yet, they were extremely violent and resorted to barbaric acts. It appears from the Spanish records and archaeological findings that the Aztecs were most definitely a violent society, but were they inherently violent or did they have rational reasons related to non-violence explaining their behavior?
The main reason scholars think that the Aztecs were seen as a malicious group was their ritual of human sacrificing. Spanish records of the Aztecs have been known to exaggerate their descriptions of human sacrificing but archaeological research done in 1960 and 1969 tends to support the conquistadores’ accounts. Headless human rib cages completely lacking the limb bones were found at Aztec sacrificial sites. Although these remains were found, many scholars perceive this as a religious act pertaining to the Aztec’s belief that humans must sacrifice that, which was most precious to them, life, in order to receive in return the sun, rain, and other blessings of the gods that make life possible. Ortiz de Montellano (1978,1990) attributed the Aztec practice of human sacrifice to their belief that the gods required it. He went on to say that the majority of human sacrifice during harvest periods indicated that it was “a gesture of thanks and reciprocity to the gods (1978:614).”
The Aztecs often went to war with their neighbors to bring back prisoners for human sacrifice; this was called the flowery wars. Although the Aztecs did take prisoners to be sacrificed, some scholars believe that the flowery wars were not only for obtaining sacrificial victims. Hassig (1990) linked human sacrifice to their unstable economic position. He analyzed the flowery wars as an empire-building strategy that was used to wear down stronger enemies rather than as a deliberate procedure to capture people for sacrifice. Price (1978) and Isaac (1983) similarly thought that the flowery wars reflected the shifting of power between neighboring cities and their inability to conquer the Valley of Mexico (Tlaxcala-Pueblan Valley). Price suggests that the failure of military conquering made human sacrifice an ideal excuse to explain this lack of success. King Moteuczoma characterized the wars as rituals for obtaining captives and as military training for soldiers. This is seen as a strategic plan to direct the conquistadores’ attention away from political and military weaknesses in the Aztec civilization.
In the mass majority of sacrificial rituals, cannibalism was performed. This often took part during the sacrificing of prisoners of war but also happened during the sacrifice of some of their own people. Harner (1977) rejected anthropological theories hypothesizing that human sacrifice was caused by the requirement of their religion and gods. He thought that their causes were because of a high population rate that caused protein scarcity. Based on studies of population pressure, Harner (1970) suggested that the big picture of Aztec human sacrifice and cannibalism resulted from demographical and ecological factors.
These created protein shortages, population pressure, seasonal crop failures, a lack of livestock, the depletion of wild game in the region, famine, and the environment surrounding the valley was not suitable for farming due to the desertification of the land. The Aztecs had corn and beans to provide protein but since these vegetables could only be grown in certain seasons, they were an insufficient way to get protein. This is what led Harner to believe cannibalism was their only constant and abundant supply of protein. Harner also suggested that the purpose of the flowery wars was to capture prisoners to sacrifice with the intent to consume them. Price, (1978) however, disagreed. She stated that the highest classes of society, who consumed most of the human sacrifices, already had easy access to other meat.
Ortiz De Montellano (1978) argued against Harner’s hypothesis as well. He stated that there was a wide range of meat protein available, advances in agricultural techniques, plenty of stored food, and that the Aztecs had a good overall diet. Montellano also suggested other ideas as to why the “ecological hypothesis” was not true. The first was that the Aztecs were conquering new lands and areas for agriculture, which sometimes provided them with a new source of game to hunt, thus having a larger pool of meat to eat.
His second was of the minor availability of the total human protein from sacrifice because the flesh was reserved for the elite, which included great warriors and priests. Montellano’s third was evidence that explained that the bulk of the Aztec’s sacrifices took part during the periods of time in the year when there were plenty of crops and plenty of food to easily sustain them. This means that instead of the Aztecs relying on human meat during the off-season, they practiced cannibalism regardless of their food status.
Michael Winkelman (1998) said, “in comparison to other societies with human sacrifice, the Aztecs were extreme in several measures: they were the only human sacrifice society in this sample with a high risk of famine; the highest on several measures of population pressure; in the highest category of population density (over 500 persons per square mile); and had the highest levels of overall warfare for land resources. Therefore, their sacrifice and cannibalism may reflect their extreme conditions on many ecological variables.”
John M. D. Pohl (2002) stated, “Aztec sacrifice, once perceived as a ruthless practice committed by a ‘tribe’ seemingly obsessed with bloodshed, is now seen as no more or less brutal than what many imperial civilizations have done.” The Aztecs were not the only people throughout the Earth’s history to have such violent practices. William Prescott (1992) compiled research comparing the Aztecs violent ways to those of other cultures throughout history. According to Prescott’s research, such violent practices were found among the ancient Canaanites, the Celtic people, and the Romans. The Romans had slaves that they condemned to die merely for the purpose of entertainment in the Colosseum.
The research also notes the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament, where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for God. While the story was against sacrifice it still shows that it was a known practice. Another biblical story of sacrifice that Prescott mentions is the story of Jepthah. Jepthah pledges that he will sacrifice the first living creature that he saw when returning home if god would give him victory in his upcoming battle. When Jepthah returns home, he is greeted by his daughter and is forced by the bindings of his word to make a burnt offering of his daughter. Prescott’s compilation of research also included the Hindu custom of suttee, which was the suicide of the widow on the funeral pyre of her husband because of the Hindu belief in Samsara.
French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1964) described the Aztecs as suffering from “a maniacal obsession with blood and torture.” However, Harner (1977:51) stated, “Gruesome as these practices may seem, an ecological perspective and population pressure theory render the Aztec emphasis on human sacrifice acceptable as a natural and rational response to the material conditions of their existence. A materialist ecological approach reveals the Aztecs to be neither irrational nor mentally ill, but merely human beings who, faced with unusual survival problems, responded with unusual behavior.”
The Aztec’s beliefs about the world and how they, as a people, could keep the sun rising and the plants growing and therefore continued life for future generations was also a very powerful force in their commitment to give to the gods the highest honor of human sacrifice. The Aztecs definitely had a violent culture and had some very unorthodox practices, but were their methods any more cruel than nuclear warfare, terrorism, and torture for political reasons? We look at the Aztec’s reasons for their violent actions as insufficient but we do not question our own reasons for the violence we create today. Perhaps it’s in the way we view, interpret, and justify the actions.