At the time of the Spanish conquest in 1521, the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world, potentially numbering 200,000 inhabitants. Over a period of 200 years it grew from a small settlement on an island in Lake Texcoco into a powerful political, economic, and religious centre.
The ceremonial centre was located inside a walled area and included the Great Temple, dedicated to the Aztec patron deity Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc, the temple of Quetzalcoatl, the tlachtli (ball game court) with the tzompantli or rack of skulls, the Sun Temple, dedicated to Tonatiuh, the Eagle’s House, which was associated with warriors and the ancient power of rulers and platforms for gladiatorial sacrifice.
It is well known through historical evidence that the Aztec rulers, priests, and certain classes of warriors practised cannibalism within religious rituals. Archaeologist Gabino López Arenas examined skeletal material found within the ceremonial precinct, and the results formed part of his thesis Decapitation and dismemberment ritual of the ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlan: an interpretation of its symbolism.
López Arenas explained that the osteological evidence showed that the victims had been de-fleshed immediately after sacrifice, as the cuts or alterations were made to fresh bone. Some of the bones also exhibited exposure to fire.
Communion with the divine
The practice of cannibalism within Aztec society was purely ceremonial and the flesh was only ingested by individuals of high social rank. The intention was to absorb the divine force that held the body of the ritually killed. To the Aztecs, the sacrificed individuals were the incarnation of the gods whom they represented, and to eat their flesh was a communion with the divine.
López Arenas cited in his study that the Spanish writer Francisco Cervantes Salazar, referred to ritual cannibalism, explaining that legs and arms were the most prized parts and most frequently eaten, but flesh from hands and feet were only for the high priest and ruler. However, the blood was never consumed as it was considered to be food for the gods. Diego Duran – a 16th century Dominican friar – also wrote that one of the privileges of the warriors who acquired the rank of tequihua was the right to eat human flesh in certain ceremonies and to achieve this they had to have taken at least four prisoners in battle.
Sacrifice of children and captives
Rituals were performed on certain dates, such as in Atlcahualo, the first month of the calendar year, when children were sacrificed in honour of the gods of water or rain, and their flesh then boiled and eaten. They were apparently encouraged to cry before sacrifice, as it was thought that tears were a sign that rain would come.
During the month of tlacaxipehualizli, those sacrificed in the temple of Huitzilopochtli were eaten in the house of the warrior who captured them; the meat was cooked and each guest given a piece from a bowl.
Past Horizons. 2014. “Bones from human sacrifice at Tenochtitlan ceremonial complex”. Past Horizons. Posted: January 18, 2014. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/01/2014/bones-human-sacrifice-tenochtitlan-ceremonial-complex