Nearly every celebration of Mexican heritage by Mexicans in the United States now features references to the Aztecs and some form of traditional Aztec dance, called La Danza Azteca. This would be something like the Irish celebrating Oliver Cromwell and the Cromwellian confiscations and settlement—only worse. Few Mexicans today, on either side of the border, are descendants of the Aztecs; their ancestors are the people the Aztecs conquered, enslaved, tortured, and sacrificed.
The Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico sometime during the 13th century. Legend says they came from the north, a place they called Aztlan, which could have been in New Mexico or Arizona. Suffering a series of droughts and having exhausted the natural resources of Aztlan, they fought their way south, through tribe after tribe, finally arriving in the Valley of Mexico as a well-organized military aristocracy. Generation by generation, the Aztecs reduced the relatively advanced city-states they found in the valley, until, by the middle of the 15th century, they had become the predominant tribe, governing from their capital of Tenochtitlan, an island-city in Lake Texcoco.
They enslaved other tribes or reduced them to vassals, collecting from the latter tribute in food, women, and victims for sacrifice. Although the Aztecs did not introduce human sacrifice to Mesoamerica—the Toltecs and Mayans were infamous for their bloodletting—they certainly practiced it on an unprecedented scale. The numbers of people—often girls entering puberty—sacrificed annually were in the thousands. Most anthropologists argue at least 20,000 humans were sacrificed each year. Several researchers put the number at more than 200,000. Woodrow Borah, the highly regarded chair of the U.C. Berkeley Center for Latin American Studies during the 1970’s, claimed 250,000, although Borah also estimated the population of the Valley of Mexico during the 15th century at a seemingly impossible 25 million.
Early Spanish accounts say 20,000 were sacrificed annually in the capital city alone. The Aztecs claimed that, when they dedicated the great pyramid at Tenochtitlan, they sacrificed more than 80,000 people in four days. In four lines that stretched for two miles, the victims were marched to the top of the pyramid and there dispatched by Aztec priests working in shifts. The numbers may have been Aztec hyperbole, but early Spanish chroniclers offer supporting evidence. Gonzalo de Umbria reckoned the number of skulls on the great rack in the center of Tenochtitlan at 136,000. Bernal Diaz said that, upon entering the central plaza of Xocotlan, “there were piles of human skulls so regularly arranged that one could count them, and I estimated them at more than a hundred thousand.” Andres de Tapia described two immense towers made entirely of skulls held together by lime. There may have been more than 100,000 skulls in the towers. In account after account, in central plaza after central plaza, the number of skulls astonished the Spanish.
Aztec gods demanded flesh and blood, and flesh and blood is what the Aztecs gave them. Propitiation of the sun god was especially important. His life-giving light would fade forever without the hearts of humans. But the Aztecs also butchered people simply for food. Production of food became an ever-more-demanding problem during the 15th century, as the population of the Valley of Mexico swelled. Maize, beans, and squashes were grown in greater quantities by reclamation of land from marshes and lakes, but animal protein, supplied chiefly by wild game and by domesticated dogs and turkeys, was hard to come by. Human beings were a handy substitute. Most sacrificial victims—for the gods and for cannibalism—came from conquered tribes or from vassals as part of their regular tribute. Slaves were less commonly used. Aztecs themselves were never sacrificed.
The sacrifices began with La Danza Azteca. To the beat of drums and the wail of horns, splendidly feathered warriors moved their limbs and pranced about while sacrificial victims were prodded by spears or dragged by their hair up the pyramid steps. Once on top, they were immediately spread-eagle on their backs and Aztec priests, using obsidian knives, sliced open the victims’ chests and cut out their hearts. The priests then held the still-palpitating hearts to the sun and threw blood into the air. The bodies were quickly removed—to make room for the next set of victims—and allowed to tumble down the steep sides of the well-designed pyramid. Upon reaching the bottom, the corpses were carried off and butchered. Three limbs of a corpse were the property of the warrior who had captured the victim in battle. Heads were reserved for Aztec priests who cracked open the skulls to eat the brains. The skulls then joined thousands of others on racks or poles in central plazas. The remaining limb and other body parts were stewed with peppers and tomatoes and eaten by hungry Aztec warriors and their families. Some meat was saved for the carnivorous animals at the Aztec royal zoo.
The Spaniards were surprised to learn that the Aztecs had no desire to create a unified empire by conquering and assimilating surrounding tribes. Better to allow the tribes to remain as vassals or enemies who could then be forced to deliver sacrificial victims as tribute or suffer capture in war. The territory occupied by vassals or enemies amounted to human stockyards with no manpower or administrative costs to the Aztecs.
For those who present the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica as the ignominious white man versus noble red man, the Aztecs present a problem. So, too, does the thought of Cortez and a few hundred soldiers conquering the all-powerful Aztecs. The Spaniards had the horse, weapons of iron, diseases not native to Mexico, and centuries of fighting the Moors, but they also had as allies the tribes who suffered unspeakable torture and mayhem at the hands of the Aztecs for a century—something those tribes’ descendants should consider the next time the colorful Danza Azteca groups perform.