Late last week, Science magazine archaeology writer Lizzie Wade released a report on the shocking scale of human sacrifice among the Aztecs. For generations, students have wondered at the horrifying tales of priestly murder among the Aztecs: the removal of the heart, still beating, from a living person’s torso; the decapitation of the corpse; the creation of racks of skulls to be placed in the Tenochtitlan tzompantli. When the Spanish reached Tenochtitlan in 1519, they saw this barbarity, and promptly razed the tzompantli as well as the Templo Mayor (two enormous pyramids). Mexico City is now built on the site.
According to Wade:
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. (The other tower, they suspect, lies under the cathedral’s back courtyard.) The scale of the rack and tower suggests they held thousands of skulls, testimony to an industry of human sacrifice unlike any other in the world.
Archaeologists ended up finding enough evidence to estimate the size of the tzompantli:
[A]n 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. From their knowledge of the eras of the Templo Mayor, archaeologists estimate that the particular phases of the tzompantli they found were likely built between 1486 and 1502, although human sacrifice had been practiced in Tenochtitlan since its founding in 1325. … “All premodern societies make some kind of offering,” [Tulane University bioarchaeologist John] Verano says. “And in many societies, if not all, the most valuable sacrifice is human life.”… about 75% of the skulls examined so far belonged to men, most between the ages of 20 and 35—prime warrior age. But 20% were women, and 5% belonged to children.
Our culture has a nasty habit of romanticizing everything foreign to us. And it’s one thing to appreciate cultural differences that have no moral consequences. But the practice of human sacrifice, so ringingly rebuked in the Judeo-Christian tradition, existed widely and at huge scale in Aztec society, among others. The very fact that Science seems to look askance at the Spanish conquistador’s disapproval of the practice tells us something about Western failure of moral courage:
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. But the Spanish conquistadors who marched into Tenochtitlan in 1519 saw them differently. For them, the skulls—and the entire practice of human sacrifice—evinced the Mexica’s barbarism and justified laying waste to the city in 1521.
This is not a mere cultural difference. It’s not a question of viewing skulls as flower-pots versus evidence of human value. It’s the difference between approval of the ritual murder of people up to and including children, and the disapproval of it. That doesn’t justify everything the conquistadors did, of course — they were brutal in different ways. But the Western belief that human beings are made in the image of God forecloses the ritual murder of children. And that is a pretty massive moral advance beyond seeing the slaughter of children as a spiritual good.