119 Human Skulls Unearthed in 15th-century Aztec Shrine

More than 100 human skulls have been discovered in the Huei Tzompantl, a macabre skull tower near an Aztec temple. (all images courtesy of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, INAH)

Archaeologists in Mexico City have unearthed 119 human skulls encrusted in the east side and façade of the Huei Tzompantli, a circular structure located near a 15th-century temple dedicated to the Aztec deity of war, sun, and human sacrifice Huitzilopochtli.

Though its existence had been rumored for centuries, the hair-raising skull tower was first discovered in 2015 by a team of researchers from the Urban Archaeology Program of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), along with 484 human skulls of victims likely killed during ritual sacrifices to the gods. The structure dates back at least to the reign of Ahuitzotl, the eighth Aztec ruler, between 1486 and 1502, and measures approximately 4.7 meters (~14.5 feet) in diameter. It is among the most important archaeological discoveries related to Aztec ceremonial practices.

Researchers of the Urban Archaeology Program of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia uncovered a new section of the Huei Tzompantli tower (photo by Melitón Tapia for INAH)

The most recent excavation of the Huei Tzompantli revealed the skulls of 119 men, women, and at least three children, bringing the total number of skulls found in the tower to more than 600.

“The Templo Mayor continues to surprise us at every turn,” said Mexico’s Secretary of Culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, in a statement. “The Huei Tzompantli is without a doubt one of the most impactful archaeological findings of the last few years in our country, as it is an important testament to the power and greatness of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.”

The Aztecs likely performed human sacrifices in the belief that they kept the gods alive.

Certain Mesoamerican cultures performed ritual sacrifices in the belief that such practices would keep the gods alive. As such, the Huei Tzompantli is “a structure of life more than of death,” according to INAH. Many of the victims were likely captured in combat and sacrificed as nextlahualtin (payment of debts.)

“Human sacrifice in Mesoamerica was a common agreement established between humans and their gods, as a way of contributing to the renewal of nature and and ensuring the continuity of life itself,” said archaeologist and head of PAU Raúl Barrera Rodríguez.

The rituals were chronicled in accounts by Spanish conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo. When the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, was taken by the Spanish and their the Indigenous allies in the 1500s, several skull towers in the region were destroyed, and their fragments scattered. The towers and surrounding areas are part of INAH’s Templo Mayor Museum and Archeological Site, established in 1987 following the first excavations in the region.

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