The Empire Within Us

In a review of Buddy Levy’s book Conquistador, Chuck Pezeshki uses it as an opportunity to discuss the sociopolitical implications of psychopathic power, cruel sacrifice, and the loss of empathy (Learning from Aztecs and Bon Vivants — Empathy in the Time of the Coronavirus (VIII)). Levy describes, in taking Spanish accounts at their word, the claimed atrocities of human sacrifice supposedly committed by the Aztecs and how Cortés put on a pretense of moral outrage.

Levy writes that, “Some of Cortés’s men reported being shown a morbid place, an ossuary of human skulls, constructed to resemble a viewing theater of slain sacrifice victims. Set in stacks of five, on tiered poles between large supporting towers, were some 136,000 skulls, all the heads facing outward, the open-mouthed faces bleached to a bone-white patina from the high-altitude sun. For the Spaniards, it was a macabre and chilling sight. During his tour of the palaces and marketplace, Cortés would also have heard about other equally gruesome ritual practices, including the slashing open of the throats of infants, the beheading of young women, and the dressing of teenagers in recently flayed human skins. The shock and disgust that he felt (notwithstanding his own recent personal acts of barbarity) must have fueled his sense of mission and righteousness.” Was that true? Were the accounts accurate? Before answering those questions, let’s consider Hernán Cortés’ rhetoric and rationalizations given right before battle, from another section of Conquistador:

“Before departing, Cortés assembled the entire allied force—the Spaniards in clanking and shimmering armor, the Indian warriors in feathers—at the central square of Tlaxcala. By now more than proficient in rousing oratory, Cortés spoke to his men (translated to the Tlaxcalans through Malinche and a few pages who had learned Nahuatl) reminding them of (and cleverly providing legal precedent for) the task ahead. They embarked on a “just” cause, he said, simultaneously appealing to honor, faith, and greed. “The principal reason for us coming to these parts,” he bellowed across the plaza, “is to glorify and preach the Faith of Jesus Christ, even though at the same time it brings us honor and profit, which infrequently come in the same package.”

“Cortés went on, attempting to justify, both to the crown and in accordance with Spanish law, his proposed military actions by suggesting that the Aztecs were not a liberated nation but rather were vassals of Spain in rebellion, murderers of Spanish citizens who therefore required “a great whipping and punishment.” While the argument was weak and rather dubious, it achieved the desired effect: the army rallied with whoops and cheers. Cortés closed this portion of his speech with a salient reminder of the Aztecs’ vile practices of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and even sodomy (this last an appeal against a taboo, seemingly for punctuation). Then he called upon a crier to shout out a list of seventeen rules of engagement, recently scribed by his new war secretary. The irony of some of them is so egregious, given Spanish brutality and duplicitous behavior, that in reading them, one does not know whether to laugh or to cry.

“The highlights of this list, which Cortés called “ordinances for good government and other matters concerning war,” include the following. The purpose of the war was to impart to the local inhabitants of Mexico a “knowledge of our holy faith” and to “subjugate them, under imperial and royal yoke and dominion of His Majesty, to whom, legally, the lordship of these parts now belongs.” The terms “subjugate,” “dominion,” and “belongs” betray Cortés’s true intention: to bring this land to its knees and possess it.”

Basically, Cortés was not a nice guy, much less a trustworthy source on his own motivations. Spanish accounts were intended as imperial propaganda, but that is as expected. Of course, Cortés was also trying to advance his own career and reputation. “In effect, he was a rogue, a rebel, a pirate. Arguments about his relative morality will persist: he was manipulative, duplicitous, and egomaniacal. He was barbarous in his own way, using his religious faith and convictions to justify brutalities including torture, branding, execution, unprovoked massacre, and slavery.” He was ambitious, if nothing else, and would do anything to promote that ambition. The accusations of brutality were pretext to justify the brutality that was to come, as Levy explains:

“For the next three weeks, fueled perhaps by a desire for vengeance for La Noche Triste, and certainly wishing to make a show of unyielding power, Cortés terrorized the region, ravaging villages and cities with brutal impunity. He turned his ferocious armored war-hounds loose on any Aztecs or their allies who refused to submit; the snarling, blood-crazed animals tore them to shreds. Hacking and burning a wide and deadly course, Cortés took prisoner-slaves and exacted fealty from leaders until, as the thick smoke of sacked towns choked the horizon, he had subjugated the entire province of Tepeaca. Cortés would say of this bloody carnage, “Although…this province is very large, within twenty days we had subdued and pacified many towns and villages, and the lords and chieftains…offered themselves as your majesty’s vassals.” Cortés would later justify his brutality and the taking of slaves by arguing that it was in response to widespread regional cannibalism, which both he and the crown despised, but this claim rang false, sounding like an excuse. The campaign reached, even for Cortés, shocking levels of atrocity and barbarity. In one city he is said to have lined up and killed two thousand civilian men, while four thousand women and children watched—and the latter were then branded and enslaved.”

That was a brutal era of clashing empires ruled by the Dark Triad: psycopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. There wasn’t much allowance made for compassion or even pity. That apparently is what attracted Pezeshki to Levy’s book. Empathy is a central theme of Pezeshki’s blog and of his scholarship. According to his About page, he is “a published professor in the field of design theory and high performance work teams. […] And I’m also one of the second-wave pioneers in understanding nonlinear dynamics and complex system theory [… with] an extensive background in environmental policy [… and] experience up and down the governmental food chain.” His writings are more than worthy of studying, specifically his application of v-memes or value memes. He also has fascinating posts on diet and nutrition as they relate to society (see an earlier post, Diets and Systems, from this blog in response to that), although that is an entirely other topic. Anyway, the context of the recent post by Pezeshki is how empathy should be part of our discussion of COVID-19, specifically as a way of understanding different responses and what they mean. The focus is on human sacrifice and I agree with his larger point:

“Aztecs sacrificed victims regularly to make sure the sun would rise and set, as well as almost every other reason imaginable. That is never a good feedback loop to make. Once a society institutes Divine Rationalization justifying any depravity, the end is near. What such constant, chronic sacrifice certainly did was destroy empathy, and create a massively dissociated nation. […] What is interesting is that such treatment of people, both within, and very much without their society, destroys the ability of a society to have more evolved empathy. The last thing you would ever want to do is connect to someone having their heart cut out and then subsequently decapitated. […]

“Yet instead of being future focused, the psychopaths in charge created an entire civilization run off the rails by trauma. […] Through promotion of a class of highly sophisticated psychopaths who could both manage, exult in and design the grisly daily rituals of suffering and death, unmoored from their obvious consequences, should serve as a warning to all of us. Current Wall Street dynamics, anyone? […] This blog typically does not talk about moral justice in all of this. But it’s very hard to argue that the Aztecs didn’t have it coming. Something we might think about when we have our own version of sacrificing the poor as morally justifiable in order to keep our civilization running. What is the end game here? What can history teach us?”

He really isn’t talking about the Aztecs. Rather, he used a foreign society that is distant from us in time and place in order to give us the emotional distance to gain new perspective on our own society. I applaud what he is attempting and the ongoing project it’s part of, but I’m not sure the Aztecs are a good example for this purpose. That history of European conquest is mired in the unreliable accounts of the violent Spaniards, arguably far more brutal and psychopathic than the Aztecs. The Aztecs might have lost because they weren’t psychopathic enough compared to the Spaniards or else because they lacked the ambitious quality of psychopathy as seen in Spanish colonial imperialism, military expansionism, and genocidal exploitation — not to mention the Inquisition that led to the torture, persecution, and killing of millions. That isn’t to lessen the moral crime of human sacrifice that was practiced by the Aztecs, even if at a much smaller scale compared to the Spaniards at the time. But as we seek proper perspective toward our own society, we should also seek a fuller understanding of the societies of others.

There is much discussion and debate about Aztec human sacrifice. The archaeological record apparently hasn’t so far supported the claims made by the Conquistadors who would’ve been motivated to exaggerate. Three sites have shown the remains of individuals numbering 35, 123 and 150, not the thousands upon thousands of sacrificial victims from the Spanish accounts, much less the 100,000 that some have suggested nor even close to the ‘conservative’ estimates of 20,000. There was ritual sacrifice, but it was rather limited according to the evidence. Besides, most sacrifices were animals and, among humans, the most common practice was self-sacrifice. Even captured enemies who were sacrificed were kept for long periods of time during which they were well fed, trained in special dances, and much else. It was an immense investment and so, as this intriguingly involved knowing cooperation by the intended victim, these highly prized sacrifices were rare. Anyway, to put it in context, Cortés and his army killed more natives in battle than the most exaggerated number ascribed to human sacrifice by the Aztecs — according to Levy: “The clash of empires that followed culminated in the bloody siege of Tenochtitlán, to this day considered the longest and costliest continuous single battle in history, with estimated casualties of 200,000 human lives.”

As for Aztec cannibalism, it appears to have been much more rare, quite likely far more rare than the medical cannibalism practiced in Europe for many centuries and into the modern period, having fallen out of favor during the 19th century although it continued into the 20th century: “From creating candles made of human fat in the 1880s, to drinking blood at the scaffolding (still happening in 1908)” (Eddie Wrenn, Europeans indulged in cannibalism until the 1900s, two new books claim; Richard Sugg, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: the History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians; & Louise Noble, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture). As a side note, similar to human sacrifice, cannibalism has been more common than previously acknowledged. Weston A. Price, in searching diverse traditional societies, couldn’t find a single example of veganism but many examples of cannibalism (Being “mostly vegan” is like being “a little pregnant.”). European history is no exception when it comes to cannibalism. As with a supposed cannibalistic elite among the Aztecs, European aristocrats, royalty and popes partook of human flesh (Keith Veronese, The UncLouiseomfortably Common Practice of Medicinal Cannibalism; & Bess Lovejoy, A Brief History of Medical Cannibalism). European scholars, priests, and peasants also joined in such morbid activities, not limited to eating human flesh but also smearing human fat and sprinkling human blood on their bodies. This might be unsurprising since Europeans at the time took seriously the idea that a symbolic ritual of eating the blood and body of a sacrificed godman would bring them eternal life.

Consider that “Europe boasts the oldest fossil evidence of cannibalism,” albeit of Neanderthals, and “the world’s first cannibal incident reported by multiple, independent, first-hand accounts took place during the Crusades by European soldiers” (Sarah Everts, Europe’s Hypocritical History of Cannibalism). To Europeans, the university lecturer Richard Sugg points out, “The question was not, ‘Should you eat human flesh?’ but, ‘What sort of flesh should you eat?’ ” One might argue that European cannibalism was far more barbaric in how it dehumanized the human body. “The one thing that we know,” says Beth A. Conklin, “is that almost all non-Western cannibal practice is deeply social in the sense that the relationship between the eater and the one who is eaten matters. In the European process, this was largely erased and made irrelevant. Human beings were reduced to simple biological matter equivalent to any other kind of commodity medicine” (Maria Dolan, The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine). The human body was made into mere matter, the result of the new ‘Enlightened’ thought. Such European cannibalism became common practice — in Eating Your Enemy, Richard Sugg writes:

“Though Christian Europeans shunned the cannibalism of the New World, they themselves in fact practised cannibalism more systematically than any tribes in Canada or Brazil. Until around 1750, human fat, flesh, bone and blood (preferably drunk warm) were widely used and esteemed forms of medicine. Advocates and consumers included Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Charles II. Meanwhile, from the early sixteenth century, Protestants and Catholics in northern Europe  denounced and slaughtered one another with tribal ferocity, even as each side attacked the ‘cannibal barbarity’ or inhumanity of the other. Frank Lestringant (1997) tells how, around 1580, a French Protestant was killed and eviscerated by Catholics. His heart was next ‘chopped in pieces, auctioned off, cooked on a grill and finally eaten with much enjoyment’.

“Elsewhere such savagery might be inspired by social antagonisms. Historian Piero Camporesi (1988) tells of violent aristocratic feuds in early-modern Italy. In one case, a victim’s disembowelled heart was bitten. In a second, the narrator tells us, ‘lucky was the man who might grind the entrails between his teeth’. In a third instance, a man was tortured and killed before being disembowelled. After gnawing his intestines, his attackers proceeded to ‘cut him up into small pieces to remove his fat because he was young, being probably twenty-eight years of age, tall and slim in build’. In Camporesi’s view, the emphasis on the victim’s youth and stature betrays an intention to sell this fat to ‘pharmacologist-doctors’ who would find it ‘beneficial to all nervous ailments’. Given the trade in cannibalistic medicine, the inference looks all too plausible.

“In these incidents the aggressors do not actually eat, but enact their dominance by cannibalistic gestures. Such gestures violently break taboos, yet avoid the possibility of being contaminated by the substance of their victims. In a broadly similar way, selling Orsi’s fat is a form of derisive exploitation, and one that procures someone else to do the actual consumption.”

With that in mind, let us return to what supposedly so horrified the Conquistadors, men who weren’t squeamish about blood and guts and the screams of the innocent. Pezeshki argues, based on Levy’s book, that human sacrifice and cannibalism were central factors in the downfall of the Aztecs. The assertion is based on the evidence of an uprising among the subordinate populations who would’ve been the source of victims offered to the bloody rituals demanded by an authoritarian elite. That surely played some role, although maybe not as much considering the evidence is skimpy for a large-scale death count. Revolt might have had more to do with basic reasons such as a starving and unhappy peasant class, similar to what incited the French Revolution. A lack of empathy would still be involved, even if no dramatic large-scale violence was necessarily involved. Standard authoritarian oppression is brutal enough by itself to instigate unrest, as the Spanish would experience themselves when oppressed people fought back with Haiti being a key case in point.

Whatever may have been behind uprisings that helped the Spanish invaders, some argue that the Conquistadors were so able to defeat the Aztecs because so many of the enemy soldiers were already sick and weak from an outbreak of typhoid-like salmonella enterica bacterium, “the second of three epidemics” that killed 15 million people, as compared to the bubonic plague that did away with 25 million (Agence France-Presse, 500 years later, scientists discover what probably killed the Aztecs). By the time the would be conquerors arrived, the city was in a chaotic state where an organized defense was no longer possible. Imagine if a large empire with a population immune to bubonic plague had attacked Europe while mass infection and death was taking hold. It would’ve been an easy victory even for a small invading army, with or without local revolt. Furthermore, the higher rate of deaths in the rural areas of the Aztec empire would’ve added to the social instability for the Aztec ruling elite living in the central city. There already had been drought, malnutrition, and famine preceding the arrival of the Conquistadors. This would’ve made the population susceptible to infectious diseases and rural areas might have been affected more harshly, a situation the Conquistadors were able to take advantage of.

To return to the issue of human sacrifice, that is a complex issue. At around same the time, as I pointed out, the Spaniards were committing human sacrifice as well, even if by other means. Between the Inquisition and genocide, many millions were killed, far beyond the scope of Aztec brutality. Public torture, quarterings, hangings, burnings, etc was common practice in Europe during that era, from feudalism to colonialism. There was systemic persecution and mass decimation of entire populations and religions like the Cathars. That moral depravity and lack of empathy didn’t stop these countries from creating advanced societies and rising into empires. If anything, too much empathy would have been a hindrance for the Spaniards in seeking to conquer and enslave other societies, far from limited to the Aztecs. Psychopathy was their key to success.

Interestingly, it was during this period of mass oppression, violence, and suffering in Europe that the ideals of empathy were emerging. It had more to do with a new understanding of individuality and psychology, such as what developed in the violently warring Italian city-states in the Renaissance. Some believe the changes in mindset had more to do with changes in technology and media, such as the printing press that made books more widespread. Also, there were changes in how text was written, as seen in the introduction of punctuation and spaces between words that allowed silent reading in the privacy of one’s own mind. The conditions that create psychopathy can simultaneously inspire new attitudes, ideals, and visions of empathy. Thomas Paine, to take an example from another empire, could see from his house the almost daily public killings at the gallows which included the death of a childhood friend and it probably helped to later shape him into a revolutionary who proclaimed himself to be a citizen of the world. By the way, what became of the executed? “In Great Britain, the body supply was easily replenished by using the corpses of criminals. The Murder Act of 1752 allowed executed murderers to be dissected for science. After the bodies were dissected, they were sent to apothecaries and were made into corpse medicine. Almost every single body part was used in one way or another” (Nichole K., Cannibalism in Europe: The Hypocrisy of Corpse Medicine in the 17th Century) — Paine was a teenager when this barbarism was put into law and so this was likely the fate of the corpse of his childhood friend. Brutality can deaden the soul but it can inspire others instead, as demonstrated by the martyrdom practiced by Stoics and inherited by Christians.

Empathy developed in spite of or maybe even in response to a dominant social order that was the complete opposite of encouraging empathy. The conditions that make greater empathy possible are complex and can take long periods to accrue. Julian Jaynes explored how the earliest signs of a more modern empathy appeared after the fall of the Bronze Age civilizations. Others have studied this in terms of the Axial Age societies and religions that came out of that prior period of dark ages, often using the Greeks as the key example. Interestingly, the Bronze Age civilizations became most brutally violent right before their collapse. Jaynes argued this change was caused the weakening of the bicameral social order. Empathy, as we understand it, had not been necessary to the communally-oriented bicameral mind with its collective identity of external voice-hearing. For that same reason, the early communitarian societies of small city-states were far less violent with no evidence of mass torture and slaughter. A new kind of violent hierarchy only rose later on with the tentative signs of a new individualistic and introspective consciousness that, so goes the argument, also made empathy as we know it possible. Violence might become more common and brutal in response to the radical potential of empathy that challenges it.

By the way, Jaynes does discuss the Aztecs. He was writing at a time when info was more limited and so he didn’t know about the drought, famine, and disease that preceded the Conquistador attack. His suggestion was that the Aztecs were still a bicameral society or beginning transition out of bicamerality and that their defeat partly came from an incomprehension about the mentality of the Conquistadors. Bicameral societies operated in a very different way. According to theory, individuality and hence sacrifice wouldn’t be experienced as is done with Jaynesian egoic consciousness. Here is what he wrote:

“The conquered Aztecs told the Spanish invaders how their history began when a statue from a ruined temple belonging to a previous culture spoke to their leaders. It commanded them to cross the lake from where they were, and to carry its statue with them wherever they went, directing them hither and thither, even as the unembodied bicameral voices led Moses zigzagging across the Sinai desert.

“And finally the remarkable evidence from Peru. All the first reports of the conquest of Peru by the Inquisition-taught Spaniards are consistent in regarding the Inca kingdom as one commanded by the Devil. Their evidence was that the Devil himself actually spoke to the Incas out of the mouths of their statues. To these coarse dogmatized Christians, coming from one of the most ignorant counties of Spain, this caused little astonishment. The very first report back to Europe said, “in the temple [of Pachacamac] was a Devil who used to speak to the Indians in a very dark room which was as dirty as he himself.” And a later account reported that

” “… it was a thing very common and approved at the Indies, that the Devill spake and answered in these false sanctuaries … It was commonly in the night they entered backward to their idoll and so went bending their bodies and head, after an uglie manner, and so they consulted with him. The answer he made, was commonly like unto a fearefull hissing, or to a gnashing which did terrifie them; and all that he did advertise or command them, was but the way to their perdition and ruine.” “

Even if it were true the Aztecs had been as violent and superstitious as portrayed with a lingering bicameral mindset, maybe they offered a mirror to the invading soldiers in which to gaze upon their own distorted visage. It was the familiarity of such a society that might have so frightened those simple Conquistadors. The vestiges of bicameralism were still strong in the European mind of that era when individualism was barely taking hold, not that long after the so-called Dark Ages. The threat of a still functioning bicameral society might have been that it awakened the still living voices that exerted so much power over these religious Europeans, at a time when worship of idols and corpses was still widespread in the Catholic church.

Those bicameral voices might not be so distant for us modern Westerners either. In reading the Spanish accounts of the Aztecs, it also holds up a mirror to our own repressed dark fears and depraved fantasies. We’ll never know the objective reality of who were the Aztecs and it ultimately doesn’t matter. We don’t have to look outside of the West to know the bloody origins of the psychopathy that rules our own modern world. The Empire never ended, as Philip K. Dick said — call it Roman, Spanish, Aztec, or American. It’s all the same Empire and we carry it in our soul and psyche, our shared humanity, in the shadows of the unconscious. It’s not whether or not those others lacked empathy but, as Chuck Pezeshki would agree, if we will allow ourselves to empathize with our own darkness, what we’ve denied in ourselves. The Other is to be found within.

* * *

Ancient Aztec skull rack discovered in temple complex in middle of Mexico City — decapitated victims’ skulls used in mortar and used like bricks
Ahhuatl:
A good demonstration of the disconnect between what the Spanish claimed and the actual empirical evidence.

ictlantecuhtli:
They found 35 skulls so far. Hardly close to 100,000.
The Spanish were quite awful at estimating things in their accounts. A lot of the numbers have been inflated to make things sound grander.
And Diaz wrote his book decades after the event when he was an old man. His account comes into conflict with Cortes’ letters on numerous accounts, probably because Diaz wanted to make things more exciting to get more money for his book.

Britannica Book of the Year 2014
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.
p. 194

In central Mexico, north of the Maya world, archaeologists discovered another mass grave, in what appeared to indicate the largest human sacrifice in Mesoamerican prehistory. This finding, published in the December 2012 issue of Latin American Antiquity, garnered significant press after its initial publication. Christopher Morehart (then of Georgia State University) and colleagues—while investigating ancient canals and irrigation systems in proximity to Lake Xaltocan (now drained), about a half hour’s drive from Mexico City—discovered a looted site. This site, which appeared to have included a ritual shrine, produced evidence of more than 150 human skulls—some of which included the first and second cervical vertebrae—carefully placed in linear rows. The crania that were analyzed showed that most of the victims were male. Radiocarbon dating indicated that these individuals were sacrificed sometime between 600 and 850 CE, beginning about the time of Teotihuacan’s collapse. Teotihuacan was located just 15 km (9 mi) southeast of the shrine, and its collapse was attributed to social disruptions caused by massive drought. If indeed drought conditions were affecting the broader region at this time, then the region’s inhabitants may have intensified their ritual practices in an effort to appeal to deities that could intervene on their behalf. The site’s ceremonial nature was indicated by the presence of the shrine, which contained such ritual objects as incense burners, figurines depicting water deities, and pottery embellished with agricultural imagery. The sacrifice of so many male individuals within this ritual context suggested that the drought must have been severe along Lake Xaltocan.

Aztec sacrifice and the blood fetish
u/AlotOfReading:

Primary sources surrounding the Conquest of Mexico are a tricky thing to interpret. They were the product of a set of social and political environments vastly different than today’s. Even our best primary sources are far from comprehensive or accurate. Diaz is neither. There have been many different attempts3 to convey the context of Diaz’s writings to the modern reader, but none that can be understood by taking quotes out of context. It’s this difficulty with interpreting primary sources of the conquest that schools often teach guided interpretive readings of primary sources to help students navigate their biases. As /u/Ahhuatl and /u/Mictlantecuhtli (both flaired users on /r/Askhistorians) correctly note, Diaz’s claims are not archaeologically substantiated. I will defer to /u/Ahhuatl’s previous post to explain the issues with the scale of sacrifice and death in precolumbian Mexico.

Why did Mesoamericans sacrifice people, and why was it not because “the gods don’t bleed?” – A further analysis of the flaws of “The Road to El Dorado”
Ahhuatl:

“What’s unique is the scale and its centrality, not the act itself.”

This is actually a fairly debatable point. It is important to contextualize our understanding of Mesoamerican culture – specifically to recognize that our understanding of the scope and nature of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica is almost wholly derived from colonial era sources. The once source we have that actually interacted with Precolumbian Mesoamerica comes from the Conquistadors themselves – Cortes, Diaz, et al. These sources don’t do much in the way of granting us a sense of the number of people sacrificed by the Aztecs or any Mesoamerican culture and they, just like later colonial sources, had every incentive to exaggerate the scale of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica. The conquest of the Aztec Empire fueled a firestorm of controversy that was already taking place in Europe regarding the morality of subjugating people as the Spanish were doing. Emphasizing the supposed devilry inherent to Mesoamerican religion helped bolster the reputation of the Spanish in the eyes of the Church and the rest of Europe. This isn’t to lend the impression that all of the sources we have on Mesoamerica were deliberately distorting the truth. There are several other mitigating factors which call the accuracy of Spanish depictions of human sacrifice into question as well. Most notably, texts from the Middle Ages routinely involved the inflation of statistics for the sake of dramatic purpose. The Spanish themselves would claim that they claimed millions of people in the Conquest. Most damning however is that our most valuable sources – Sahagun, Duran, Motolinia – were all writing decades after the fall of the Aztec Empire. In that time period, a huge swath of the people who had actually lived prior to the arrival of the Spanish had died. The Spanish frequently relied on people who either claimed to be members of the Aztec elite or stories passed on to younger generations to form their understanding of what life was like before the Conquest.

I’m going to take a controversial stance here, so you should take what I say with a grain of salt. To be frank, I don’t find the figures provided by most Mesoamerican historians to be much more than baseless speculation. […] There is an elephant in the room when it comes these proclamations about the supposedly unparalleled scale and brutality of Aztec sacrifice: archaeology.

Lets play a guess game, shall we? In 2012, Archaeologists discovered the largest example of human sacrifice ever recording in Mesoamerica. If you had to guess how many unique individuals identified in that excavation, how many would you guess there were? More than 150,000? Nope. More than 15,000? Nope. More than 1,500? Nope. The largest example of mass human sacrifice ever found in Mesoamerica contained more than 150 skulls. 150 skulls. What Berdan is alluding to in his quote is the enormous gap that exists between the reported scale of Aztec human sacrifice and actual, physical evidence we have of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica. Given the scale and intensity of Aztec sacrifice (and note that the aforementioned discovery date to a period before the Aztecs were even around) to say nothing of Mesoamerican sacrifice as a whole, there should be vast quantities of sacrificial remains all over the region – yet there aren’t. Right now there are several flimsy explanations for this huge discrepancy, the most pervasive of which actually derives from the Harner if I remember correctly. It has been suggested that the befuddling absence of sacrificial remains can be attributed to cannibalism.

Cannibalism in Mesoamerica is an area of even more dubious credibility that discussions of human sacrifice. While there is no question that cannibalism did take place in Mesoamerica, what we know about its practice really does not explain the absence of subsurface sacrificial remains. […] Beyond this, only particular portions of the human body were consumed in ritual cannibalism. Other parts, like the skull, were displayed or ritually buried, so we should STILL be seeing more evidence of sacrifice than we are.

I don’t want to lend the impression that the Aztecs or other Mesoamericans did not practice at notable amount of human sacrifice. Rather I want to emphasize to you and other readers that we academics are still coming to terms with this complex issue on our own. When you look at the hard data we have about Mesoamerican human sacrifice and then look around at other cultures and realize the verifiable scale of Mesoamerican human sacrifice is barely greater than anywhere else in the world, your perspective on the matter changes significantly. It is fascinating to me how unequal the treatment of Mesoamerican human sacrifice is to say, Ancient Greek sacrifice. When people think of human sacrifice, they immediately think of the Mesoamericans. The entire legacy of this truly remarkable region has been polluted by this perception of Mesoamericans as a particularly bloodthirsty, cruel, superstitious, and barbaric group of people. Yet the reality that the Ancient Greeks practiced human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism is something that is functionally erased from the collective mindset of the West. We still envision the Ancient Greeks as the inherently good an enlightened people – even though they subjugated a far wider array of people than the Aztecs did and even though held many of the same cultural practices as the Aztecs. Yet there is a deep, almost obsessive, need among not just the public but scholars as well to focus in on Mesoamerican sacrifice. I think if anyone ever suggested that the limited archaeological evidence of Greek human sacrifice stems from the founders of Western civilization simply eating all of their sacrifices, they’d be laughed out of the room. Yet these extreme explanations, so divorced from the evidence and rational explanations, are eagerly embraced by the West. Why?

The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction
by David Carrasco
Chapter 4: Cosmovision and human sacrifice
pp. 77-82

No topic has caused more controversy and confusion about Aztec life than human sacrifice. Chroniclers, priests, anthropologists, journalists, filmmakers, and creative writers have repeatedly focused on it, some to condemn it, some to refute it ever took place, and some to understand the indigenous purposes and cultural meanings of ritual killing and the ritual ingestion of human flesh. That the Aztecs practiced ritual human sacrifice is beyond doubt, but it is also clear that Spanish chroniclers exaggerated the numbers and purposes of these sacrifices as a strategy to justify their own conquests and prodigious violence against Mesoamerican men, women, and children. Scholarship also reveals that many ancient cultures including the Romans, Greeks, Japanese, Chinese, Africans, Andeans, and Egyptians practiced human sacrifice, often in very large numbers. Even though the Aztec image in Western thought ranks them as the biggest sacrificers in the world, there is no substantial archaeological or documentary proof that they ritually killed more people than other civilizations.

Evidence of human sacrifice

[…] This kind of eyewitness observation can be combined with Aztec pictorial and alphabetic sources, the detailed accounts of elders interviewed by Spanish friars, as well as archaeological evidence, to show that ritual violence was a basic part of Aztec life. We now know that ritual killing long predates the Aztecs with the earliest Mesoamerican evidence coming from hunter-gatherers in the Tehuacán Valley at around 5000 bce. It is also likely that many city-states before the Aztecs practiced some form of human sacrifice. But there is a huge discrepancy between the numbers that the Spanish “eyewitnesses” tell us and what careful archaeological work in this area has revealed. For instance, here is what the record shows at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, the most thoroughly excavated Aztec site in Mesoamerica, where the largest numbers of sacrifices most likely took place:

  • Two sacrificial stones ( techcatl ) stood at the entrance to the two shrines at the top of the Great Temple. Each rose from the floor about 50 centimeters and served as altars for ritual killings, just as Díaz del Castillo described them.
  • More than a thousand ritual knives, mainly of flint, were uncovered in the excavation of different stages and offering caches. They are carefully decorated and often transformed into the face of a deity awaiting the sacrificial moment. Evidence shows that these knives were not used in the ritual killings but rather were symbolic offerings.
  • Traces on the surfaces of statues, altars, and floors of certain ritual chambers reveal that sacrificial blood was smeared on divine images and spilled in significant quantities.
  • The human remains of 126 people were buried throughout the site. Forty-two are children who, suffering from various diseases, had their throats slit so the blood could be used as an offering to the gods. Forty-seven adult heads with the top vertebrae connected were found in various offerings. Only three complete human skulls have been uncovered. They were perforated at the temples probably indicating that they had previously hung on a nearby skull rack. Thirty-three facial skull masks decorated with shell-and-pyrite eyes and representing the Lord of the Underworld, Mictlantecuhtli, were deposited in the floors of the Great Temple.

This is the sum total of all sacrificial human remains found in over thirty seasons of intensive excavations in the main ritual precinct of Tenochtitlan. It is remarkable that more human remains have been found at the site of Teotihuacan (1–550 CE ) than at this central ritual landscape and capital of the Aztec empire. A Spanish account claims that more than 80,000 enemy warriors were sacrificed in a four-day ceremony, and yet no evidence approaching one-hundredth of that number has been found in the excavations of Tenochtitlan. […]

It may come as a surprise that the most common form of sacrifice was autosacrifice. This involved the use of maguey thorns or other sharp instruments to pierce one’s earlobes, thighs, arms, tongue, or, in the case of sinners and priests, genitals, in order to offer blood to the gods. The most common type of killing was the beheading of animals like the quail. But the most dramatic and valued sacrifices were those of captured warriors, women, children, and slaves. These victims were ritually bathed, carefully costumed, often taught special dances, and sometimes either fattened or slimmed down during the preparation period. In one of the most fascinating examples, during the feast of Toxcatl, great care was taken to choose a male with the most perfect body who would ritually become the prodigious god Tezcatlipoca before he was sacrificed. […]

Moreover, this person lived in luxury for an entire year as he promenaded, with guards, throughout the city, playing his flute, greeting people in gracious prose, for he was the living image of one of the most powerful of Aztec gods.

About thirty years ago, a heated debate broke out in academic and popular journals about the extent and purpose of Aztec cannibalism. Some argued that the Aztecs ate large numbers of people as a necessary source of protein. The Aztec state was called the “Cannibal Kingdom” by an anthropologist who unfortunately did a very limited study of the evidence. The opponents of the protein argument stated that cannibalism in Aztec Mexico was primarily a ritual need to feed the gods and renew their energy, not a gastronomic need of humans to feed themselves. This meant that in the Aztec understanding of sacrifice and cannibalism, it was the gods who were nurtured through the ritual offerings of blood and human flesh. The Aztecs had abundant protein sources in their environment, thus only small amounts of human flesh were consumed, primarily by nobles, on relatively rare occasions.

7 thoughts on “The Empire Within Us

  1. As Jared Diamond in “Guns,Germs, Steel” noted, germs (ie typhoid, TB, smallpox) were the real killers of North & South America’s indigenous people and this was due to lack of immunity caused by not having large domestic animals such as pigs, cows, sheep, etc which provided Europeans, Asians, Africans, immunity over many generations. If this were not the case, Europeans would have only been able to establish small enclaves along the coasts, similar to what took place in most of Africa and Asia.

    • I’ve heard that explanation before. And it does seem like the simplest and most plausible explanation. It otherwise seems incomprehensible that Europeans were so easily able to overwhelm such vast populations across the Americas.

  2. “The Empire never ended, as Philip K. Dick said — call it Roman, Spanish, Aztec, or American. It’s all the same Empire and we carry it in our soul and psyche, our shared humanity, in the shadows of the unconscious. It’s not whether or not those others lacked empathy but, as Chuck Pezeshki would agree, if we will allow ourselves to empathize with our own darkness, what we’ve denied in ourselves. The Other is to be found within.”–This is a powerful statement, seemingly full of truth. I looked up the source of the Dick quote, and will now order the book, of which the online blurb reads: “This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance.”

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