Imagine standing before a wall of about 60,000 human skulls. How would you react?
I’ve visited the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City at least thirty times. It’s a required stop for anyone visiting the city, and as someone who once dreamed of being a tourist guide (I'm serious), every time I have the chance to show people around, the museum and archaeological site is the first item on the list. I’ve always thought it's amazing how, no matter how many times you go, there’s always something new or interesting to see. However, for me, the most appealing and fascinating exhibit is the huge Tzompantli replica in the museum's lobby. If you’ve seen it in real life or in photos, you know how overwhelming it is to be stand in front of it. If you haven't, imagine a massive wall formed with skulls arranged in columns and rows. But what were these installations for and what did they mean for ancient Mesoamerican cultures?
Although many people believe that these walls were exclusive to Aztec culture, since early on in the 20th century, archaeologists have found fragments and even entire Tzompantli throughout Mexico, meaning that other cultures like the Mayan, Toltec, and Zapotec built their own. These civilizations' cosmogonies are based on a similar system (albeit with some differences), which explains why this kind of edification can be found in different regions. But what historians and archaeologists can’t understand yet is what exactly they were made for.
When the Spaniards arrived, they were shocked when they saw many of the customs these civilizations had. One of the things that frightened them the most was definitely the Tzompantli, which, according to many of the contemporary records and codex, was just one example of the savage and primitive customs these bloodthirsty people had. Over time, some of these stereotypes about these civilizations became ingrained in our culture, and to this day many people still believe in many of the exaggerations made by chroniclers at the time. For instance, regarding the Tzompantli that welcomed them when they arrived at Tenochtitlan, the Aztec empire's capital, Andrés de Tapia, a soldier, wrote that the wall had about 136,000 skulls. However most records agree that they had 60,000 at the most (which is still a huge number, if you ask me).
So, going back to what these edifications meant, there are many theories. The most accepted and probable theory is that the skulls belonged to people who had been sacrificed in rituals. We already know that many pre-Columbian societies believed in a strong connection between the gods and the earth, and that the best way to honor them and prevent their wrath was through human sacrifice. This theory is supported by the fact that most of these Tzompantli have been found in the center of the cities, right where the sacred sacrifices took place. Moreover, another widely accepted theory related to the last one is that the skulls actually belonged to enemy soldiers who were captured and later sacrificed for the gods.
In 2015, a team of archaeologists working in downtown Mexico City, where Templo Mayor is located, discovered a set of skulls belonging to Huey Tzompantli (the Great Tzompantli) that is believed to be the main one of seven (as one of the Spanish chroniclers stated) that allegedly existed in the capital. This massive Tzompantli was dedicated to the god of war Huitzilopochtli, the ruling deity of the Aztecs. And it’s believed that it was actually created during the Flower (also known as Flowery) Wars that lasted from mid-15th century to the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519. Unlike most wars throughout history, the Flower Wars were different because they were based on spirituality and religion.
So, according to these stories, when the second half of the 15th century started, the Aztecs went through a season of terrible crops that lasted for about four years. No matter what they did most of them were a huge failure that caused severe famine and the death of a large fraction of the population. Desperate to solve the problem, emperor Moctezuma Ilhuicamina consulted his advisors and priests, who determined that the gods were angry with the Aztec people and that failed crops were their punishment. The only solution they found to appease the gods' wrath was to continue making sacrifices to honor them, but since the situation was so urgent they had to do it at a greater scale. So, they decided to start a war to earn the gods' forgiveness.
Since they considered this to be one of the most sacred endeavors, this war wouldn’t be tainted by ambition or violence for the sake of violence. For starters, priests would burn incense and paper between the two armies, since they wanted their battle to be witnessed by the gods. Then, unlike regular battles where they would employ a large variety of weapons and military tactics, here they could only face their rival with macuahuitl, a ceremonial wooden club with obsidian blades. By using this weapon, they prioritized hand-to-hand combat, but more importantly a fair one without tricks in which only the ablest warrior could defeat his opponent. Then, the bodies and the surviving warriors from the enemy army were taken back to Tenochtitlan, where they were sacrificed, decapitated, their heads added to the huge Tzompantli.
Now, according to archaeologists and historical records, the Huey Tzompantli was created between 1486 and 1502, during the government of Emperor Ahuizotl. While it was believed to be a rectangular structure of about 36 x 14 meters, the archaeological excavations show that it might have been a cylindrical tower made of skulls and limestones. Having said that, let’s talk about the speculations of why these were made, besides the sacrificial and ritualistic purposes. Some believe these were erected in the main area of the temples to scare away enemies, but most specialists agree that these civilizations believed in the cyclical nature of life, so in order for life to continue, there had to be death. That’s why there were many offerings and sacrifices: to preserve life. For the Aztecs and the other cultures that emerged in the region, death wasn’t something to fear. On the contrary, you were given a chance to live and the opportunity to die to preserve life.
There still is a lot of research to do about Tzompantli, since the more we discover, the more we realize that the theories we'd taken for granted weren’t as accurate as we thought. Take for instance the recent discovery of the Huey Tzompantli. As we discussed before, for centuries it was believed that these skulls belonged only to warriors, male warriors, to be precise. Well, of the thousand skulls or so that have been unearthed, it was discovered that some of them also belonged to women and children, which means that all the historical facts we have could actually be incorrect. In fact, thanks to more recent scientific and anthropological studies it was determined that some of the skulls had a European bone structure, which suggests that these were captured soldiers of the Conquest and could support the idea that Tzompantli were meant to cause fear in invaders.
Raúl Barrera Rodríguez, an archaeologist that has been working at the site since the discoveries were made, thinks that the fact that there are female and children's skulls could mean different things: they could be female warriors (although rare, there’s evidence some existed), or even captive prisoners representing female deities that were sacrificed to honor them. As Rodrigo Bolaños, one of the main biological anthropologists at the excavation, states, “something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new.” This is something that’s worth investigating since it shatters ingrained beliefs about this society. Perhaps many years will pass before we have a definitive answer, but what's true and what we always have to bear in mind is that most of the historical evidence was written by the invaders, so, although there have been studies that confirm them, we’re still influenced by their vision of the culture clash.
Either way, the Tzompantli isn’t just important to understand Mesoamerican cultures’ visions on life and death, their beliefs, and the way they lived every day. It's also important because it has become part of the very complex syncretic culture of modern Mexicans. It's on Day of the Dead altars, works of art, movies, literature, and even in our everyday life. We live surrounded by skulls and skeletons without fearing them. On the contrary, we’ve learned to love them and embrace them. More than a macabre creation, we acknowledge them as joyous reminders of our role in life.
Here are other facts about the Aztecs you might find interesting: