The skulls of the Templo Mayor

More than once, I’ve read that the pre-Columbian Aztec civilization was so blood-curdlingly homicidal that History herself blessed its destruction by the conquistadors. I used to suspect that the underlying assumptions were unsound, relying on exaggerations by self-interested Spanish chroniclers. Here’s Lizzie Wade writing in Science:

Some conquistadors wrote about the tzompantli [“an enormous rack of skulls”] and its towers [“two towers of skulls that flanked the tzompantli“], estimating that the rack alone contained 130,000 skulls. But historians and archaeologists knew the conquistadors were prone to exaggerating the horrors of human sacrifice to demonize the Mexica culture. As the centuries passed, scholars began to wonder whether the tzompantli had ever existed.


Archaeologists at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) here can now say with certainty that it did. Beginning in 2015, they discovered and excavated the remains of the skull rack and one of the towers underneath a colonial period house on the street that runs behind Mexico City’s cathedral. (The other tower, they suspect, lies under the cathedral’s back courtyard.)

One could argue that these findings, by themselves, don’t prove mass human sacrifice – such could have been Mayan burial practices, akin to the ossuaries in ancient Christian monasteries in Egypt, Syria, Greece and, later, Western Europe. But the context makes it clear these men and, yes, women (20%) and children (5%) didn’t just die young in a sweeping epidemic.

…[T]he researchers believe the partially unearthed skull rack was built between 1485 and 1502, and ran 112 feet in length and stretched 40 feet wide. Parts of the skull rack were constructed by cementing skulls together to support the platform. The researchers believe that structure may have once contained up to 60,000 skulls.

If this is correct, the conquistadors’ estimate of 130,000 only exaggerated the number by a factor of 2.2 rather than 10 or 100.

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