Were Conquistadors Cannibalized?

WORLD

Captured Spanish conquistadors, women, children, and horses were imprisoned for months, sacrificed, and eaten by contemporaries of the Aztecs, archaeologists report. (Guardian)

Learn more about the end of the Aztec Empire here.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

The skulls of many victims of the caravan discovered by Mexican archaeologists were displayed on tzompantlis, or skull racks, like this one. (This tzompantli is part of the remarkable Tovar Codex, which attempts to illustrate the history of the Aztec or Mexica people.) Illustration attributed to Juan de Tovar (1580s), courtesy CJLL Wright and Wikimedia.

The skulls of many victims of the caravan discovered by Mexican archaeologists were displayed on tzompantlis, or skull racks. (This tzompantli is part of the remarkable Tovar Codex, which attempts to illustrate the history of the Aztec—or Mexica—people.)
Illustration attributed to Juan de Tovar (1580s), courtesy CJLL Wright and Wikimedia.

Discussion Ideas

  • Archaeologists recently found evidence that prisoners in a Spanish-led caravan were sacrificed by the Acolhuas, a people and culture indigenous to what is today the northwestern part of the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico. What evidence might indicate sacrifice or cannibalism?
    • Archaeologists describe markings on skeletons that were “consistent with flesh cleaved from bones.”
    • The name of the Acolhaus settlement, Zultepec or Sultepec, was later changed to Tecoaque, which means “the place where they ate them” in Nahuatl.
    • Evidence of a tzompantli, or skull rack, was uncovered earlier at the site. Tzompantlis frequently displayed the skulls of prisoners-of-war or sacrificial victims. (Archaeologists say the caravan victims were probably both.)
    • Markings on the rooms where prisoners were held correspond to sacrificial days on the Aztec calendar.
    • Spanish records from the 1520s document the capture of a convoy in the area.

 

This gorgeous piece of history, part of the Codex Azcatitlan, depicts Hernan Cortes’ caravan in what is today Mexico. (Cortes is the bearded blond.) Illustration courtesy Adamt and Wikimedia.

This gorgeous piece of history, part of the Codex Azcatitlan, depicts Hernan Cortes’ caravan in what is today Mexico. (Cortes is the bearded blond.)
Illustration courtesy Adamt and Wikimedia.

  • Archaeologists think the caravan intercepted by the Acolhaus was not limited to Spanish conquistadors. What other ethnicities may have been represented in the convoy?
    • People of Caribbean (probably Cuban) descent were likely part of the Spanish-led caravan. Islands of the Caribbean were the first to be colonized by Spanish conquistadors.
    • People of African descent were also likely to have been part of the caravan. There were black conquistadors—Juan Garrido famously helped Cortes defeat the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan—as well as African slaves, whom the Spanish began importing as early as 1501.
    • Indigenous Mexicans were part of the caravan. Many indigenous groups, wary of the powerful Aztecs, sided with the Spanish, whom they thought were a lesser threat. “The Spanish were able to ultimately conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan not because of guns or steel,” says one archaeologist, “but because of their fierce, skilled indigenous warrior allies.”
      • The Acolhuas themselves eventually joined the Spanish-led group, although it didn’t work out well for them. “Cortes learned of, and exploited, political rifts [in the Aztec Empire] to his advantage.”

 

  • Archaeological evidence indicates that the Acolhuas slaughter-sacrifice included people in the caravan, as well as their horses. What unusual pieces of cargo do not show evidence of being eaten by the Acolhuas?
    • Pigs! Pigs are not indigenous to the Americas, and the Acolhuas were completely unfamiliar with the animals. “The pigs were sacrificed and hidden in a well, but there is no evidence they were cooked,” said one archaeologist.

 

  • The Guardian article associates the Acolhuas with the Aztecs. Why?
    • The Acolhuas were part of the mighty Aztec Triple Alliance. In fact, their capital, Texcoco, was one of the three leading altepetls, or city-states, of the Alliance. Today, Texcoco is a city about 25 kilometers (16 miles) northeast of Mexico City.
      • The other two altepetls of the Triple Alliance were Tlacopan (what is today the Mexico City neighborhood of Tacuba) and Tenochtitlan—Mexico City itself.

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

The Guardian: Conquistadors sacrificed and eaten by Aztec-era people, archaeologists say

Nat Geo: 1525: Last Aztec Emperor Executed

Nat Geo: Tlaxcala map

(extra credit) National Institute of Anthropology and History: New Season of Excavations Begins at Zultepec-Tecoaque

One response to “Were Conquistadors Cannibalized?

  1. Pingback: 11 Things We Learned This Week | Nat Geo Education Blog·

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