The priest quickly sliced into the captive’s torso and removed his still-beating heart. That sacrifice, one among thousands performed in the sacred city of Tenochtitlan, would feed the gods and ensure the continued existence of the world. –Science Magazine
Archeologists have uncovered extensive evidence of ritual human sacrifice and an ominous “skull wall” built in the 14th-century Aztek city of Tenochtitlan – located in what is now the center of Mexico City. Discovered in the 1970’s when city electrical workers stumbled across a circular statue of the dismembered goddess Coyolxauhqui, archeologists discovered that much of the main structure – the Templo Mayor, was intact.
The Mexica built it in seven phases between 1325 and 1521, each corresponding to the reign of a king. Each phase was built over and around the earlier ones, embedding the Templo Mayor’s history within it like a set of Russian nesting dolls. Although the Spanish destroyed the temple’s final phase, the smaller temples from earlier reigns were paved over but left relatively unscathed. –Science Magazine
Human sacrifice was a common theme in Mesoamerican belief systems, which included the Maya of Southern Mexico and the Mexica, a subset of the larger Aztek culture which flourished in Central Mexico. They believed that the gods could only be appeased through constant human sacrifice, and the sun would cease to rise if they stopped – ushering in the apocalypse. Those slaughtered included enemy warriors and slaves bought specifically to be sacrificed.
Once a doomed victim had their still-beating heart carved out, priests would carry the lifeless body to a ritual space – then decapitate it face up using “obsidian blades sharper than today’s surgical steel,” according to Lizzie Wade of Science Magazine. The Mexica priests then used their sharp knives to slice away the skin and muscles of the victim’s head before carving giant holes in the side of it and shoving them onto a pole next to other sacrifices on a giant rack over 120-feet across called the tzompantli.
The skulls were bound for Tenochtitlan’s tzompantli, an enormous rack of skulls built in front of the Templo Mayor—a pyramid with two temples on top. One was dedicated to the war god, Huitzilopochtli, and the other to the rain god, Tlaloc. –Science Magazine
The skull wall measured roughly 120 feet across and 16 feet high. The find confirmed tales from Spanish conquistadors, who marched into Tenochtitlan in 1519 and decided to lay waste to the city two years later – tearing down the Templo Mayor,which the skull racks sat in front of.
Some conquistadors wrote about the tzompantli and its towers, estimating that the rack alone contained 130,000 skulls. But historians and archaeologists knew the conquistadors were prone to exaggerating the horrors of human sacrifice to demonize the Mexica culture. As the centuries passed, scholars began to wonder whether the tzompantli had ever existed.
Archaeologists at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) here can now say with certainty that it did. Beginning in 2015, they discovered and excavated the remains of the skull rack and one of the towers underneath a colonial period house on the street that runs behind Mexico City’s cathedral. –Science Magazine
Once the skulls would weather and crack and lose teeth over the course of months or years in the elements, they would be taken off the poles and made into masks, or used as mortar to add to two towers of skulls that flanked the main wall.
Eventually, after months or years in the sun and rain, a skull would begin to fall to pieces, losing teeth and perhaps even its jaw. The priests would remove it to be fashioned into a mask and placed in an offering, or use mortar to add it to two towers of skulls that flanked the tzompantli. For the Aztecs—the larger cultural group to which the Mexica belonged—those skulls were the seeds that would ensure the continued existence of humanity. They were a sign of life and regeneration, like the first flowers of spring. –Science Magazine
The tzompantli skull wall was discovered after archeologist Raùl Barrera Rodríguez, director of INAH’s Urban Archaeology Program, was called to excavate a site near the main Templo Mayor complex – digging around 20 test pits beginning in February 2015. After modern debris and colonial porcelain was unearthed, they hit the basalt slabs of a Mexica period floor.
Then, Rodriguez remembers “Hundreds of skull fragments began to appear.” In over 20 years of excavating in downtown Mexico City, he had never seen anything quite like it.