Let's stop pointing fingers. Pre-Columbian cultures didn't call dibs when it came to committing human sacrifices and nor were they bloodthirsty savages. For too long words like "barbaric" and "uncivilized" have been used to describe their practices and this happens because we're wearing the glasses of modernity. It seems that all civilizations are in a squabble to decide who was the most gory, and it's funny how the ones shouting "peace!" and "we're civilized!" have been historically the most ruthless and bellicose. If we pick a random page in a history book, we'll see that no culture is exempt when it comes to violence, and that all cultures have been touched one way or another by gory and bloody practices.
This isn't a competition to see who is more sadistic. Today we're going to discuss human sacrifice and take off our cloaks of modern self righteousness. Instead of pointing fingers we'll see what role these rituals played in their everyday life.
Blood gushing down the pyramid steps, the screams of sacrificial lambs, and the grim priests holding in their palms the hearts of the fallen, is a vivid image we've seen played in the collective imagination. But these are fantasies are filled with misconceptions that have been carried since the arrival of the Spanish to American shores. During the late fifteenth century, Spanish chroniclers related with horror the human sacrifices they witnessed from the Aztecs without bothering to find out why these were being carried out. They kind of knew they were rituals to honor their deities, but only a few took time to really delve into the matter. For many years the practices would scandalize European societies and rumors would spread.
The Aztecs had their own norms and there’s plenty of evidence to back this up. For centuries it was taken as fact that in a four day festivity to celebrate their capital city, Tenochtitlan, over 80,400 people were sacrificed. Now, this number has varied in history and has sparked a lot of controversy. Studies have been carried out to confirm this mind boggling number, and they have proven that it would have been practically impossible to carry out this mass sacrifice. Even with taking into account that there were four different sacrificial stones, each priest would have had to sacrifice about fourteen people per minute. Even if they had the most efficient system, the logistics of having over 80,000 people patiently waiting in line for their death is practically impossible to manage. The most logical explanation is that the colonizers exaggerated the numbers to paint a more savage and uncivilized society.
Now, i'm not painting the Aztecs as victims either. It’s well known that the Aztecs were one of the most bellicose civilizations in America. They were the most powerful group at the time and not because of their tender policies. They invaded, fought great battles, and forced enemy communities to pay tribute. Human sacrifice was a useful tool for them to enforce fear and power upon their enemies. Yes, they were known for their ruthlessness and it was one of the drivers that led other cultures to raise their arms and join the Spanish army.
Moreover, on April, 2016, the International Weekly Journal of Science (Nature) published a study by the University of Auckland and the Victoria University in New Zealand in which specialists in diverse areas like sociology, anthropology, psychology, and history, determined that human sacrifices played an important role in the development of big stratified societies. In this study, 93 Austronesian cultures (populations settled in Asia, Oceania, and Africa) were analyzed in relation to their ritual practices, showing that those where human sacrifices were frequently practiced had a faster development of their hierarchical social scheme. It also showed that these practices that are associated with underdeveloped cultures actually promote notorious advances. At the end of the day these practices represent the nature and essence of these societies and it's important to stop measuring and judging the past based on our own moral set of values and start understanding them under different lenses.
For more historical articles, take a look at these:
The Aztec Women Who Became Goddesses After Dying During Childbirth
Ocelot Meat And Other Pre-Columbian Birth Control Methods