Human sacrifice in Mayan culture
It has long been a matter of contention: Was the Aztec and Mayan practice of human sacrifice as widespread and horrifying as the history books say? Or did the Spanish conquerors overstate it to make the Indians look primitive?
In recent years archaeologists have been uncovering mounting physical evidence that corroborates the Spanish accounts in substance, if not number.
Using high-tech forensic tools, archaeologists are proving that pre-Hispanic sacrifices often involved children and a broad array of intentionally brutal killing methods.
For decades, many researchers believed Spanish accounts from the 16th and 17th centuries were biased to denigrate Indian cultures. Others argued that sacrifices were largely confined to captured warriors, while still others conceded the Aztecs were bloody, but believed the Maya were less so.
“We now have the physical evidence to corroborate the written and pictorial record, ” said archaeologist Leonardo Lopez Lujan. He said, “some ‘pro-Indian’ currents had always denied this had happened. They said the texts must be lying.”
The Spaniards probably did exaggerate the sheer numbers of victims to justify a supposedly righteous war against idolatry, said David Carrasco, a Harvard Divinity School expert on Meso-American religion.
But there is no longer as much doubt about the nature of the killings. Indian pictorial texts known as “codices, ” as well as Spanish accounts from the time, quote Indians as describing multiple forms of human sacrifice.
Victims had their hearts cut out or were decapitated, shot full of arrows, clawed, sliced to death, stoned, crushed, skinned, buried alive or tossed from the tops of temples.
Children were said to be frequent victims, in part because they were considered pure and unspoiled.
“Many people said, ’We can’t trust these codices because the Spaniards were describing all these horrible things, ’ which in the long run we are confirming, ” said Carmen Pijoan, a forensic anthropologist who found some of the first direct evidence of cannibalism in a pre-Aztec culture over a decade ago: bones with butcherlike cut marks.
Associations with god of death
In December, at an excavation in an Aztec-era community in Ecatepec, just north of Mexico City, archaeologist Nadia Velez Saldana described finding evidence of human sacrifice associated with the god of death.
“The sacrifice involved burning or partially burning victims, ” Velez Saldana said. “We found a burial pit with the skeletal remains of four children who were partially burned, and the remains of four other children that were completely carbonized.”
While the remains don’t show whether the victims were burned alive, there are depictions of people — apparently alive — being held down as they were burned.
The dig turned up other clues to support descriptions of sacrifices in the Magliabecchi codex, a pictorial account painted between 1600 and 1650 that includes human body parts stuffed into cooking dishes, and people sitting around eating, as the god of death looks on.
“We have found cooking dishes just like that, ” said archaeologist Luis Manuel Gamboa. “And, next to some full skeletons, we found some incomplete, segmented human bones.” However, researchers don’t know whether those remains were cannibalized.
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