Researchers Discovered A Site Where Ancient Mexican Tribes Kidnapped And Ate European Invaders

Researchers have been digging at the archaeological site at Zultepec-Tecoaque, 75 miles east of modern-day Mexico City, since 1933. In 2015, they made a horrific discovery: the remains of a Spanish caravan of more than 500 people who had been systematically sacrificed and even cannibalized, proving there's truth in at least some gruesome Aztec stories.

The natives in Zultepec-Tacoaque area were known as the Acolhua. They worshiped Mesoamerican gods at the Pyramids of Tecoaquea and were allies of the Aztec. During the second wave of Spaniards who landed in Mesoamerica around 1520, a group of about 500 soldiers, women, and children made their way from the east coast of modern-day Mexico to Tenochtitlan, headed for the Aztec capitol.

The group never made it to their destination. At some point along their trek, they were intercepted and taken prisoner by the Acolhua. The archaeological findings of the events at Tecoaque reshape commonly held beliefs about how indigenous Mesoamerican groups reacted to European outsiders. The Acolhua weren't submissive, instead putting up a strong, incredibly bloody resistance that researchers have only recently unearthed.

  • Sacrificial Victims Had Their Hearts Removed By Priests While They Were Still Alive

    Sacrificial Victims Had Their Hearts Removed By Priests While They Were Still Alive
    Photo: Codex From The 16th Century / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Based on what is known about Aztec sacrifice, the Spaniards taken captive in 1520 would have been killed in a very specific way. According to historians, the Aztec flayed their victims alive in a sacrificial ceremony:

    The victim was laid out on the platform. Four priests were at the back holding each limb, and a fifth priest would actually insert a knife, cut the chest open, tear the heart out and offer it to the sun. The heart was placed on a sacred vessel and then the vessel was brought down the steps.

    After the sacrifice itself, which was only done in the presence of the priests, the offering was put on display for the public. At Zultépec-Tecoaque, the skulls of many of the sacrificial victims were placed on a tzompantli, or skull rack, for all to see.

  • The Acolhua Refused To Eat Pig Meat, Instead Preferring The Taste Of Their Human Victims

    When the Acolhua took the estimated 550 humans captive in 1520, they also seized many animals, including horses and pigs. The Acolhua would have used the horses as working animals, but they simply slaughtered the pigs. With no previous contact with this European animal, pigs were completely new to the Mesoamerican Acolhua.

    They didn't eat the flesh of pigs, but merely discarded the animals' bodies after killing them. Analysis of the human bones, on the other hand, showed knife marks that indicate flesh was carved from the bodies, likely to be eaten by the Acolhua.

  • Captives Were Sacrificed Every Few Days Over A Period Of Months

    Based on the remains found at Zultépec-Tecoaque, archaeologists determined more than 500 captives from a Spanish caravan were among those sacrificed. The evidence indicates that priests took prisoners every day or two as offerings to various gods. The Aztec had a sacred calendar (as well as an agricultural one) to keep track of what sacrifices were needed when.

    Some of the prisoners, especially those killed near where they were kept, may have been offered to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, sun, and human sacrifice, during the ritual celebration of Panquetzaliztli. Captives were also sacrificed in a central square, where there were temples dedicated to Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl, deity of the wind, and Tezcatlipoca, god of heaven and the earth. Sacrifices made in the plaza to the south were more agriculturally focused, since that was where temples to Tlaloc, god of rain, and Mictlantecuhtli, deity of death, were built.

  • The Acolhua Kept The Captives In Their Old Homes While They Built New Ones For Themselves

    The size of the group captured by the Acolhua necessitated new buildings and accommodations at their capital city Zultépec. The Acolhua set out to build new domiciles for themselves while holding the captives in their old homes in makeshift cells. Archaeologists found evidencet that the captives were killed near those rooms and in the proximity of other prisoners as the Acolhua asked the gods to protect them from strangers.

    The men, women, and children—many of whom were European but also included people from other tribes, Africans, and groups from the Caribbean islands—were considered to be outsiders by the Acolhua. 

  • Children Were Saved For Ritual Sacrifices To The Rain God

    Children Were Saved For Ritual Sacrifices To The Rain God
    Photo: Bernardino de Sahagún / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Archaeologists believe that the children taken captive were offered to Tlaloc, the rain god. Mesoamerican groups, as well as some South American societies, believed that children's tears could help bring rain.

    Among the bones found at Zultépec-Tecoaque, archaeologists found numerous clay figurines resembling Europeans, Africans, and animal-like creatures. It's believed that the figures played some role in the sacrifices. 

  • The Uncovered Bodies Reveal How Victims Were Dismembered And Displayed

    The Uncovered Bodies Reveal How Victims Were Dismembered And Displayed
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In addition to the skulls found at Zultépec-Tecoaque, there is bone evidence indicating how sacrificial victims were mutilated. Some of the bodies were missing femurs, vertebrae, and pelvises, which indicates how they were dismembered and which of the bones had significance to their captors. Bones would have been selected to keep as trophies, and warriors were allowed to hang them as decoration.

    The body parts on display, whether in a tzompantli or in some other form, also served as a warning to outsiders about the threat they faced. When the Spanish retaliated against the Acolhua months after the initial capture in 1520, they most likely found the bones of allies waiting for them in some macabre displays. In one recorded instance, the Acolhuas placed a one-year-old child's skull inside of a woman's pelvis.