It was just one year ago that archeologists digging in Mexico City made some startling revelations about the legendary Huey Tzompantli – a tower of skulls of humans (including women and children) sacrificed by the Aztecs to Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of sun, war and human sacrifice. Estimates at the time were that the number of skulls in the tower – really a rack – number between 675 (the total exposed) and 130,000 (the number Spanish invasion leaders Bernal Diaz del Castillo and Andrés de Tapia estimated in the early 16th century when they arrived in Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs that is now Mexico City. The excavations have continued since last year and the “somewhere between” number has been determined. If there’s any good news, it’s that the people whose skulls are in Huey Tzompantli have long ago received their bad news.
“Still, the size and spacing of the holes allowed them to estimate the tzompantli's size: an imposing rectangular structure, 35 meters long and 12 to 14 meters wide, slightly larger than a basketball court, and likely 4 to 5 meters high.”
Let that size, from a report in the journal Science on the latest findings, sink in for a minute. That’s 115 feet long and 46 feet wide. The “holes” referenced are the postholes for the long-disintegrated wooden poles which held the skulls in place. Ready for more?
“At its largest, the tower was nearly 5 meters in diameter and at least 1.7 meters tall.”
Using the size of the average Aztec skull, the archeologists at the National Institute of Anthropology and History now estimate that the tower at its peak size contained several thousand skulls. Vera Tiesler, a bioarchaeologist at the Autonomous University of Yucatán in Mérida, Mexico, puts it best (or worst):
"Tenochtitlan was the maximum expression [of the tzompantli tradition]."
In any study of such a horrific magnitude, researchers must try to detach themselves from the gruesome reality of how these skulls got there. Bioarchaeologist Ximena Chávez Balderas says the cut marks show that the skulls were defleshed after the sacrifice and the precision of the cuts showed that those performing the ritual obviously had a lot of practice.
"[Mexica priests] had extremely impressive anatomical knowledge, which was passed down from generation to generation.”
Sure, your mom told you to pick a career and be good at it … but couldn’t you have chosen something else?
INAH anthropologist and research leader Jorge Gómez Valdés says 180 mostly complete skulls and thousands of fragments have been removed from the tower and subjected to isotopic and DNA analysis. Dental and cranial modifications indicate that tzompantli was not a tower of locals, says researcher Lorena Vázquez Vallín.
"Hypothetically, in this tzompantli, you have a sample of the population from all over Mesoamerica. It's unparalleled."
Surprisingly, the evidence indicates that these foreigners actually lived for months in the city before being sacrificed. They were healthy (ending longstanding speculation that they were slaves), young (mostly between 20 and 35) and quite possibly captured warriors and their families, which included women and children.
Why? It's still a gruesome mystery, but bioarchaeologist Tiffiny Tung of Vanderbilt University in Nashville tells why she and others study the practice of human sacrifice.
"We can go down literally to the individual person and tell that person's story. And then we can pull back and tell the story … about these big communities."
And hopefully learn some lessons.