Until this discovery in 2017, historians thought the Spanish lied about an Aztec skullcap. (2023)

Experts were unsure whether to believe Hernán Cortés' accounts of an Aztec temple with a wall covered in 130,000 human skulls until a 2017 excavation revealed the chilling truth.

Beneath Mexico City lies what the Aztecs believed to be the center of the universe: the Templo Mayor. Destroyed by Spanish invaders in 1521, it rested beneath the busy city streets.

Only recently has the world begun to understand the hidden history of the Aztec 'main temple', which is said to be buried within a wall of thousands of skulls. Historians used to believe this was mere anti-Aztec propaganda until they made a startling discovery in 2017.

The first views of the main temple

Until this discovery in 2017, historians thought the Spanish lied about an Aztec skullcap. (1)

Wikimedia CommonsThe ancient Templo Mayor was located in the heart of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.

In 1913, sunlight touched the Templo Mayor for the first time in centuries when a Mexican archaeologist named Manuel Gamio, recently appointed inspector of ancient monuments,uncoveredits southwest corner under a demolished house.

Gamio's subsequent excavations around the estate unearthed stone serpents. The property belonged to the Spanish conquistador Alonso de Ávila in the 16th century, and historical texts have long claimed that the Templo Mayor was also located there.

Like a coiled snake, the mystery of the Templo Mayor began to unravel over the decades.

Until this discovery in 2017, historians thought the Spanish lied about an Aztec skullcap. (2)

FlickrA stone serpent in the Templo Mayor in what is now Mexico City.

First, a ladder was found in 1933; then more stone snakes in 1948; and in the 1960s, the expansion of Mexico City's subway led to a treasure trove of Aztec artifacts.

Still, the great Aztec temple in its entirety remained elusive. Bits and Pieces have surfaced, but how much more could be uncovered? Spanish conquerors described huge pyramids and walls covered in human skulls. Could there be such a thing? Or did the Spanish, in their feverish destruction of Aztec society, level the Templo Mayor?

In 1978, the world finally got closer to the answer. A backhoe crouched to clear the ground of a huge boulder, 10 feet in diameter, that was blocking its progress. As the dirt of the ages fell away, he found himselfstarein female size. She was dismembered and decapitated.

Until this discovery in 2017, historians thought the Spanish lied about an Aztec skullcap. (3)

Wikimedia CommonsCoyolxauhqui, die aztekische Mondgöttin.

The woman wasn't really a woman. She was the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxāuhqui (pronounced "coy-ol-shau-key"). According to Aztec myth, his severed head was the moon itself. Aztec legend has it that Coyolxāuhqui planned a conspiracy against his mother, only to have his brother Huītzilōpōchtli ("wit-si-lo-poch-tli"), the Aztec god of the sun and war, and one of the honored deities temple greater to be killed. .

Then, in 2017, another structure was discovered in the Templo Mayor: a wall of more than 600 skulls. The lives lost in the service of building this wall would present a terrible complication in Aztec sacrificial science.

Human sacrifices in the Templo Mayor

Until this discovery in 2017, historians thought the Spanish lied about an Aztec skullcap. (4)

Wikimedia CommonsThe Aztecs sacrificed humans to appease the sun god.

The Aztecs considered the Templo Mayor or "main temple" to be the center of the universe. It was a central meeting point of Aztec life in the city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the once prosperous and sophisticated empire and thus also the center of religious life.

Construction of the temple began in 1325, around the same time as the founding of the great Aztec capital, and over the next 200 years the Templo Mayor underwent numerous remodeling, expansion, and revisions. Although the shape of the temple was constantly changing and was rebuilt seven times before Cortés arrived, the location remained unchanged because it was believed that changing the temple's location would provoke the wrath of the gods.

As the center of religious life, the Templo Mayor played an important role in ritual human sacrifices.

During a ritual sacrifice, prisoners were painted and clothed in bright colors. As the crowd gathered, the victims were dragged up the great steps of the temple and onto the top of its pyramids.

There the Aztecs laid a sacrifice on a sacrificial stone. As the crowd below watched, a priest raised his hands, and sunlight glittered on the obsidian knife he held. He immediately plunged the knife into the victim's chest, tearing open the woundthe still beating heart of the victimfrom your chest.

Female victims were sometimes decapitated and dismembered, in keeping with the Coyolxāuhqui myth. The priest held the heart up to the sky for Huītzilōpōchtli, the sun god, to see, and then smashed it against the sacrificial stone. The priests would then throw the victim's body down the stairs of the Templo Mayor.

Then the victim's body would be transferred to another chamber. There, priests used obsidian blades sharper than today's surgical steel to sever the cervical vertebraedecapitateThe victim. Then the skin and muscles were removed and the priests drilled holes in both sides of the skull.

Eventually the skull could be placed on one of the massive skull stands in the Templo Mayor called "Tzompantli". Some would stay here; others became masks after months or years of weathering by the elements.

The form of Aztec sacrifices often varied. In theOpening Ceremoniesof the sixth Templo Mayor in 1487 about 4,000 people were sacrificed in four days. Each year the Aztecs sacrificed thousands; some believe the Aztecssacrificedup to 20,000 in a year, in his determination to appease the gods.

Until this discovery in 2017, historians thought the Spanish lied about an Aztec skullcap. (5)

Wikimedia CommonsThis map of Tenochtitlán was printed in 1524, a few years after Cortés conquered the city.

Believing they owed the gods, the sacrifices were intended to appease and please the deities who controlled the weather, bountiful harvests, and the fortunes of civilization. Without human sacrifice, the Aztecs believed the sun might not rise. The world itself could turn to dust.

The intense violence of the victims therefore served an important and positive purpose for the Aztecs. They were considered vital, life-giving and nutritious. botanical remainsfoundin the Templo Mayor, the skulls suggest that they were decorated with flowers, indicating that the Aztecs viewed sacrifices as more than just violent and perhaps even beautiful and elegant.

At Templo Mayor, archaeologists found that while many of the skulls belonged to men of warrior age, the tower discovered in 2017 contained a surprisingly high percentage of skulls of women and children. The women and children may have been captured along with the warriors and then sold into slavery to be sacrificed. Many Spanish accounts have stated this as such.

However, archaeologists examining the teeth of several victims have found that many of the dead spent significant time in Tenochtitlan. Slaves or not, they were drawn into the Aztec sacred city. It turns out not everyone was captured, sold, and immediately sacrificed to the gods.

The arrival of the Spaniards in Tenochtitlán

Until this discovery in 2017, historians thought the Spanish lied about an Aztec skullcap. (6)

Wikimedia CommonsSpanish conquistador Hernán Cortés came to the New World at the age of 18. Less than two decades later, it destroyed the Templo Mayor and the city of Tenochtitlán.

When Hernán Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan around 1519, he would have immediately set his sights on the Templo Mayor. In the center of the city, which had about 80 buildings, the Templo Mayor emerged as the largest.

The great temple was built with twin pyramids and was 90 feet high. A pyramid represented Tlāloc, the Aztec rain god; the other honored Huītzilōpōchtli, the god of the sun and war. At the top of both pyramids were shrines accessed by wide stone steps. Stone serpents stood guard at the base of the pyramid. A third lower temple represented the ancient snake god Quetzalcoatl.

The city of Tenochtitlán also impressed the Spaniards. It had 250,000 inhabitants, the most of any European city at the time.

In a letter to the Spanish King Carlos I Cortésdescribedto the Astec capital:

“The city is as big as Seville or Córdoba. The main streets are very wide and very straight... 60,000 people come every day to buy and sell”.

Einer von Cortés' Männern, der Konquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo,wrote this, "those great mansions and [temples] and buildings sticking out of the water, all of stone, looked like an enchanted vision... In fact, some of our soldiers asked if it wasn't all just a dream."

The Destruction of Tenochtitlan

Until this discovery in 2017, historians thought the Spanish lied about an Aztec skullcap. (7)

Wikimedia CommonsTwo years after Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico with an army of soldiers, he completely destroyed Tenochtitlán.

In 1521 Cortés destroyed Tenochtitlan. The Spanish had a significant advantage over the Aztecs, who initially confused him with the god Quetzalcoatl.

To the Aztecs, Cortés seemed to possess divine power. He brought smallpox, which decimated the natives. He brought weapons with him, which meant his troops could easily defeat the Aztec warriors. Cortés also indulged in a Mayan connection known asa Malinche, who could interpret the plans and actions of the Aztecs for him.

Cortés was ruthless and ruthless. When his deputy learned of an uprising among Aztec religious leaders, he imprisoned them in a temple during a religious ceremony and sent soldiers to massacre them.

No ritual sacrifice could stop Cortés, and the Spaniards ended the world as the Aztecs knew it.

Spanish soldiers brutally destroyed the Templo Mayor and the city of Tenochtitlán. A Spanish chronicler remarked that "all the wonders" of Tenochtitlán "were shattered and lost, nothing left standing".

Other Spaniards described the Aztec capital in more frightening terms. In particular, they described the gruesome sight inside a temple: a chamber filled from wall to ceiling with human skulls.

It was thought these macabre claims might just have been propaganda intended to justify the Spanish destruction of Aztec civilization until the 2017 discovery proved them to be true.

Huey Tzompantli: The Skull Wall

Until this discovery in 2017, historians thought the Spanish lied about an Aztec skullcap. (8)

Great Temple MuseumThe Skull Wall or Zompantli of the Templo Mayor.

The Spanish conquerors described such a spectacle. A Spanish soldier named Andrés de TapiaclaimsThe shelf contained tens of thousands of skulls "arranged in a very great theater of lime and stone...many dead heads nailed to the lime with teeth knocked out". Tapia estimated that the wall housed 136,000 skulls, but this was long considered an exaggeration.

Archaeologists examining the Templo Mayor site in 2017 discovered a shelf containing nearly 700 human skulls, mostly women and children. She was nicknamed "Huey Tzompantli", which can be translated as "The Great Wall of Skulls".

"We only expected men... what warriors would look like."written downRodrigo Bolaños, biological anthropologist involved in the discovery of Templo Mayor. "This is really new."

Until this discovery in 2017, historians thought the Spanish lied about an Aztec skullcap. (9)

FlickrThe Spaniards estimated that the skull wall they found in the 16th century contained 130,000 severed heads. In fact, it was almost 700.

The skulls were not attached to the bodies or left in a heap. Each had a large hole on either side of the skull where it dangled like a bead from a thick wooden pole, creating a literal wall of empty eye sockets and dirt-smeared eyes and pale bones.

The skull rack is believed to have served three purposes and is found in most Aztec cities. On the one hand, he created a public display of human sacrifice. Second, he honored Huītzilōpōchtli. And third, the tzompantli evoked a powerful reminder of the reach and power of the Aztec empire.

main temple today

Until this discovery in 2017, historians thought the Spanish lied about an Aztec skullcap. (10)

Wikimedia CommonsToday you can visit a museum of the Templo Mayor next to the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City.

The Spaniards built their own city on the ruins of the great Aztec capital. And yet Mexico City, Mexico City, contains echoes of its Aztec roots.

The center of the Aztec universe became the Centro Histórico or El Centro, the pinnacle of public and religious life. Political negotiations continue today in the National Palace. Like the Templo Mayor, the Spanish Cathedral towers over the city's public square. The Spanish even used stones from the smoldering remains of the Templo Mayor itself when building their cathedral.

The Metropolitan Cathedral was built over the Templo Mayor to symbolize the Spanish conquest, but Aztec history is coming to the fore. Archaeological investigations continue and visitors can stroll through the Templo Mayor Museum. You can see Aztec artifacts: stone statues, obsidian knives and sacrificial skulls.

And in the end it may be the Aztecs who have the last laugh. The city of Tenochtitlan was built on a swamp and over the years Mexico City began to sink. However, the Templo Mayor was built on solid ground and sinks much more slowly. Other structures sink to earth at a rate of about 20 feet per century, but the Templo Mayor remains more stable.

As the rest of the city falls around you, the Templo Mayor rises.

Read about those nextDiscovery of cruel child sacrifices in Peru. so look howthe ancient chinese sacrificed dogs instead of people.

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