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Religion in Highland Mexico
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Natalie Boiton (nboiton)
Why Did the Aztecs Practice Human Sacrifice?
Was Cannibalism the Main Cause?
Elaborate and intimidating clothing such as above was worn by priests, nobles, warriors, dancers and sometimes victims at many Aztec ceremonies.
These modern depictions of ancient Aztec ceremonies are how some native Mexicans like to remeber their heritage.
The mystery that shrouds the gruesome practices of human sacrifice in the Aztec community is a passionately debated subject. Many anthropologists have sought to unveil the true motive(s) for human sacrifice in the ancient Aztec world, and thus a number of conjectures have been postulated. All of these theories have holes, however, and none can definitively be proven as the sole cause for human sacrifice among the Aztec. The
Heart extraction was a key feature of most sacrificial cereonies.
most obvious, recognized and evidence supported of these theories is the religious beliefs of the Aztec. They felt that the blood and hearts of humans were the food that sustained the creator and sun god, Huitzilopochtli, and that the world would end if they did not feed him. However, this premise alone does not explain many factors within sacrifice, such as the question of why Huitzilopochtli needed
blood. Regarding these factors, it is then necessary to examine other possible causes or explanations of the prevalence of human sacrifice in this society. Other theories include psychosocial pacification of the masses, economic and political factors like reinforcing existing social stratification and power, as well as giving individuals the ability to move up in society by becoming a respected warrior. However,
one of the grimmest and, to many modern peoples, most innately repulsive explanations is the ecological hypothesis. This theory states that the practice had
ecological benefits such as nutritional value of cannibalism. There is much unrest over this theory among scholars who wish to settle the issue, and interpretations of the available evidence are hotly debated, such as dietary, agricultural, animal and other records. It may be that the tradition was so well founded and persistent because it had multiple factors supporting it, but it is interesting to try to uncover the truth about such a curious topic.
To begin, it would seem necessary to understand the terms of and extent to which the Aztecs carried out the practice of human sacrifice. The most common method of sacrificing a person was to extract the heart of the still living victim, which was often followed by decapitation and/or dismemberment of the limbs. However, we can see from ancient codices, historical accounts, and other historical evidence that there is a long list of other means of ceremonial sacrifice, though most still include removing the heart. Decapitation alone or followed by heart excision was one method, also there was slitting the throat, being thrown into fire sometimes followed by heart extraction, being lacerated in a gladiatorial battle against captors and then extracting the heart and flaying the skin, being shot with arrows then usually extracting the heart, drowning, being buried alive, and being thrown from the top of a pole or pyramid, sometimes after heart/head removal. Some less common methods were being bludgeoned or stoned to death, being impaled, extracting the entrails, being trapped in a collapsing house, and being squeezed in a net (Graulich 2000).
The Aztec religion is well known for its morbid reverence to the perpetually blood-thirsty gods. The role of religion in these rituals has been well documented by the Aztecs themselves and European colonizers at the time of contact. In short, the ceremonies were meant to appease the gods so that life on Earth could continue. In greater detail, the sacrificial ceremonies:
Helped the cosmos function by reenacting the creation of the world and the birth of Venus-Maize, then assisted the creation of the sun that vanquished the forces of darkness in the underworld and
rose bringing the day and the rainy season assimilated to it, by erecting the trees that supported the sky, by nourishing the gods and in particular Sun and Earth, by making offerings to propitiate the earth
and rain deities, the Tlaloques, and so forth (Graulich 2000: 353-4).
The Aztecs would reenact the founding myths through the ritual killing of victims who would be homage to the deities who had given their lives in primeval times to create the earth, sun, stars, man, etc. Nahua texts explain the relationship of man to the gods, “Because the gods sacrificed themselves for us (
), we humans are
(those who exist by the sacrifice of the gods)” (Leon-Portilla and Shorris 2001: 256). According to their religion, the universe runs on an energy called
, meaning “animating spirit,” which is derived from the word
, meaning “to make heat or sun.” This energy was the driving force of the gods, particularly the main god of the sun, Huitzilopochtli. In humans,
flows throughout the bloodstream and when a person is frightened, it concentrates in the heart. Without constant offerings of this energy to the gods, the universe would cease to exist (Pettifor 1996).
These ideas seem to clarify some of the mystery around the reason for human sacrifice in the Aztec society, and the concept of
explains to a degree cannibalism and blood-letting, as well. But many questions still remain unanswered. Why exactly did the myths conclude that the gods are driven by or desire human sacrifice, or any form of violence for that matter? One possibility is that there is no explanation. It seems that, sometimes, beliefs and practices in many religions do not have a sole identifiable cause behind them; they are just the best attempt of the people to make sense of life and the world around them.
Cannibalistic practices of the Aztec are documented in their ancient codecies as well as by the Spanish conquistadors.
It seems many anthropologists are not satisfied without a tangible explanation. Another theory that has been proposed in an attempt to fill in the holes left by the religion-based theory is a popular theory among some researchers based on the idea that human sacrifice had nutritional value. Michael Harner is the most well known proponent of this theory, called the ecological hypothesis, and claims that the sacrificial victims served as an alternate source of protein. This theory states that the Aztec population grew so large that they depleted many of their natural resources, including wild game. Also, it is said that the Aztecs had a lack of domesticated animals for food, that all forms of food were scarce, and that they had unfavorable agricultural conditions and seasonal crop failures. Though it is well known that the Aztecs’ main form of subsistence was maize and beans, these crops alone do not provide enough fatty acids to sustain an entire populous (Winkelman 1998). Harner claims that the sacrificial practices were merely a “disguise” for large-scale cannibalism, and that this was a natural and inevitable outcome due to the lack of other nutrition (Harner 1977).
Michael Winkelman’s critique of the theory examines multiple cultures throughout history that practiced human sacrifice based on the records of their dietary history, including the Aztec, Ovimbundu, Ibo, Kafa, Roman Marquesans and Atayal societies. Societies that practice human sacrifice, according to the data, rely mainly on agriculture with some domesticated animals as food sources. However, all of these societies had what is considered low or fair agricultural potential and all had only mid-range methods of agriculture. Of these societies, though, only the Aztec had high risk of famine. Still, Winkelman’s overall analysis of food resources, including total meat protein, total food and food problems, show that in all of the cultures there was no significant correlation to human sacrifice (Winkelman 1998). Thus, he felt there was no significant proof for the ecological hypothesis.
According to Harner’s analysis, there is still some evidence for the theory in the difference of the correlation between the amount of sacrificial victims and of domesticated animals in the Inca and Aztec societies. His information shows that the Incas had a significant source of domesticated animals and a low annual count of human sacrifice, “in the hundreds.” He does not specify how many victims were annually sacrificed in Aztec society, mainly because there are multiple historical and archaeological accounts that differ greatly with no conclusive number. It seems that anywhere between 15,000 and 80,000 victims were sacrificed annually, with the most common estimate at 20,000, though some accounts claim that at least that many were sacrificed in one ceremony. In any case, the numbers of annual victims were far greater than in the Incan culture while the numbers of domesticated animals available for food were far less. He does explain that the most likely is the estimate of Woodrow Borah at 250,000 victims, roughly one percent of the total Aztec population (Harner 1977).
The next set of evidence Harner provides is what happened to the victims’ bodies upon sacrifice. Before describing this information, he makes note that the main, and sometimes only, objective of the Aztec wars, such as the flowery wars, were to obtain persons for sacrifice. He then states that in most cases, after sacrifice, at least three of the victims limbs belonged to the victim’s captor, who would host a feast at his home mainly comprised of a stew of tomatoes, peppers and the victim’s limbs. The remaining torso would be fed to the animals in the “royal zoo” (Harner 1977: 120).
Included in his book were many accounts from Hernan Cortes on his expeditions through Mesoamerica stating that he and his men came upon numerous cities that held prisoners captive in wooden cages, feeding them until they were fat enough to be eaten (Harner 1977). This evidence seems rather dubious, however, much like the rest of his theory. Though the theory of course cannot be disproven, there is significant evidence against its validity. The majority of other sources show that the consumption of human flesh was reserved for the elite, who would have always had other, more practical forms of meat available to eat. Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano has presented nutritional resource data and dietary information, including documentation of a wide variety of meat proteins available, large amounts of food received as tribute, storage of food and intensive agricultural techniques, which strongly suggests that the Aztec people had an adequate source of food for the population most of the time. Also, his data shows that the ecological theory cannot be verified because of the insignificant amount of protein available from humans sacrificed and the notion that the Aztecs were continually conquering new lands for agriculture and tributes. Most compelling of his evidence is that human sacrifice was often practiced during the annual periods of abundant harvests and not at times of food scarcity (Winkelman 1998).
Artifacts such as scupltures like above can tell us a lot about the ancient rituals. One way warriors celebrated the capture of enemies was to flay their enemies' skins and wear them. They thoought they could gain their opponents power through this practice.
Further contemplation of the theory rouses questions concerning practices that have been described in Aztec documents, including the wearing of the victim’s skin by their captor. This practice is purely symbolic and does not have any nutritional basis, nor does the very common practice of blood-letting. There are also accounts of rituals that required the victims to have very specific physical appearances, such as gender, age, attractiveness, etc. The specificity of the appearance of the victims does not correspond to nutrition theories. In fact, lean men and small children, who were required in many ceremonies according to historical accounts, would not be optimal choices nutritionally. Also described in Aztec documents are certain ceremonies in which the victims would be well cared for before their demise. In the case of the ceremony to honor the god Titlacuacan, the annual chosen victim would be treated like a king for the year, which would not be efficient in any means if their main purpose was to be eaten (Leon-Portilla and Shorris 2001). Sacrificing a single person would not be logical in order to feed an entire population, either.
All theories proposed have at least reasonable evidence to suggest that they may be a factor in the answer to why the Aztec society practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism. Whether the conjectures have ample or limited support, none can be definitively proven or disproven. However, the disparity between theories in evidence available suggests that some of them are more likely than others. The religion based hypothesis has undeniable, abundant evidence to suggest that it could have been the main, if not sole reason for human sacrifice. The psychosocial theory also has convincing evidence supported by other fields of social science and little evidence against it, suggesting that it may be a large factor in why this perplexing aspect of the Aztec religion came to be. Despite Michael Harner’s efforts to prove the ecological theory and the numerous attempts to find an economical cause, both seem to be short of concrete substantiation, therefore rendering them less plausible. The nutrition-based hypothesis is a gruesomely interesting one, and learning about it is much like reading a good horror novel, but despite it’s fascinating theories, there is more convincing evidence that suggests that cannibalism was a symptom rather than a cause of the practice of human sacrifice in this culture. Though it is possible that religion was the sole factor, it is unlikely, since phenomena such as this rarely have only one explanation. Also worthy of acknowledgement is that many practices, in all cultures, fulfill more than one need. So it would seem that it is not unreasonable to consider that all of the stated theories would have fulfilled a various need in the Aztec society by practicing human sacrifice. It then seems reasonable to assume that multiple or all theories may have been factors, with some theories having more prominent roles in the Aztec Society.
Understanding the motives behind human sacrifice, a practice that was so integral to Aztec culture, could help us to unveil some of the mystery that shrouds the ancient society. Unfortunately, though many anthropologists are striving to piece together the history of the culture, and have come leaps and bounds toward this goal in the past century, only fragments remain. Due to the destruction of countless priceless artifacts during the conquest of the Aztecs, and the harsh truth that we have no first hand information, only memories, myths and limited material remains, the theories may remain speculations indefinitely. We may never know the whole reality of the powerful Mesoamerican past, so it is important that anthropologists in all subfields work together to critically evaluate the data that we do have so that we do not forget a society that, given more time, might have had the potential to change the history and the future of the Americas.
A picture of the archeological dig sie at Tlatelolco near Mexico City. Nearby, in recent times, the government tried to drive away protestors who said they were fighting for a peaceful Mexican revolution, resulting in the "Tlatelolco Massacre."
1987 Review of The Jade Steps: A Ritual Life of the Aztecs by Burr C. Brundage.
34: 318-320. Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.
History of Religions
. Vol 39. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
for Aztec Sacrifice.
Leon-Portilla, Miguel and Earl Shorris
In the Language of Kings
. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.
1996 An Offer You Can’t Refuse: Human Sacrifice and the Aztec State. Electronic Document,
, accessed November 25, 2009.
1998 Aztec Human Sacrifice: Cross-Cultural Assessments of the Ecological Hypothesis.
Your final vew before being sacrificed.
Tools Used for Sacrifice
Other Artifacts Depicting Sacrifice
Trade between empires
I think I would like to focus on artifacts that give a historical depiction of or were used for human sacrifice in the ancient Aztec world (among others). In another class, I learned about human sacrifice, but I have not yet studied this practice in depth. It is not unique to Mesoamerican history, but sacrifice of other human beings is not a very common practice worldwide, so I think it is an interesting topic to learn more about. I would like to see what the artifacts and historical evidence tell us about the practice and it's place in the culture/cultures.
The Arts of Government in Early Mesoamerica
J. E. Clark
Annual Review of Anthropology
, Vol. 26, (1997), pp. 211-234
I couldn't "copy and paste" the text. I saved it as an image instead. I think I might change from Aztec sacrifice to sacrifice in ancient highland Mexico.
This image from an Aztec codex, the Tudela Codex, is extremely descriptive. It shows the black paint the priest wore, bloodletting, their image of Huitzipotchli eating the heart, the altar, and more. I don't know yet what the Spanish writing means. I think it is a great artifact since it shows so much.
When I first looked at the page, I thought the information was so specific that it must be reliable. However, there seem to be so many edits that it makes me wonder about the validity (especially when users like "Glamazon4life" are doing the editing). But I think with all of the edits that were done over a short period of time, I think they probably got the information at least mostly right, especially for this page which deals mostly with facts and not controversial topics.
"The floodplains along the Nile constitute an important but as yet little utilized series of laboratories for the comparative study of the origins
and interaction of ancient civilizations."
- “Kerma: The Rise of an African Civilization,” Bruce G. Trigger, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1. (1976), pp. 1.
Please note that module 9 appears to be missing somewhere in cyberspace. I am sure I completed this assignment, but it is no longer where I thought I had saved it. In my numerous attempts to save things to where they were supposed to be saved, without really understanding Wikispaces yet ( I still don't), I saved some things under the discussion section. That section now only has 2 posts which were both in the last hour or so.
Module 10: Why Did the Aztecs Sacrifice Humans?
Many anthropologists have sought to unveil the true motive(s) for human sacrifice in the ancient Aztec world, and thus a number of conjectures have been postulated. All of these theories have holes, however, and none can definitively be proven as the sole cause for human sacrifice among the Aztec. The most obvious, recognized and evidence supported of these theories is the religious beliefs of the Aztec. However, this premise alone does not explain many factors within sacrifice, such as the question of why sacrifice is part of the religion. Regarding these factors, it is then necessary to examine other possible causes or explanations of the prevalence of human sacrifice in this society. Other theories include psychosocial pacification of the masses, ecological benefits such as nutritional value of cannibalism, as well as economic and political factors like reinforcing existing social stratification and power.
Module 11: Why Did the Aztecs Sacrifice Humans (Revised)?
Many anthropologists have sought to unveil the true motive(s) for human sacrifice in the ancient Aztec world, and thus a number of conjectures have been postulated. All of these theories have holes, however, and none can definitively be proven as the sole cause for human sacrifice among the Aztec. The most obvious, recognized and evidence supported of these theories is the religious beliefs of the Aztec. They felt that the blood and hearts of humans were the food that sustained the creator and sun god, Huitzilopochtli, and that the world would end if they did not feed him. However, this premise alone does not explain many factors within sacrifice, such as the question of why Huitzilopochtli needed
blood. Regarding these factors, it is then necessary to examine other possible causes or explanations of the prevalence of human sacrifice in this society. Other theories include psychosocial pacification of the masses, ecological benefits such as nutritional value of cannibalism, economic and political factors like reinforcing existing social stratification and power, as well as giving individuals the ability to move up in society by becoming a respected warrior. It may be that the tradition was so well founded and persistent because it had multiple factors supporting it.
The ancient city of Teotihuacan and river that runs throught it. Image uploaded from Google Earth.
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