Researchers have been digging at the archeological site at Zultepec-Tecoaque since 1933, but in 2015, they made a horrific discovery. Within the Zultepec-Tecoaque archeological zone, they found remains of over 500 Spanish conquistadors who had been taken captive, systematically sacrificed, and even cannibalized over what is speculated to be a period of seven to nine months. Many of the victimized skulls were displayed in a trophy rack of sorts, held together by wooden stakes pushed through the temples.
The natives in Zultepec-Tacoaque area were known as the Acolhua that worshiped Mesoamerican gods at the Pyramids of Tecoaquea and were allies of the Aztec. During the second wave of Spaniards that landed in Mesoamerica around 1520, a group of about 500 soldiers, women, and children made their way from the east cost of modern-day Mexico to Tenochtitlan. The Spaniard-led group attracted locals eager to resist the Aztec who had asserted their dominance in the region and forced smaller tribes into tributary relationships.
But the group never made it to the Aztec capital. At some point along their trek, they were intercepted by the Acolhua, a Mesoamerican tribe allied with the Aztec, and taken prisoner. What the Acolhua did when they came into contact with the Spanish and what happened at Tecoaque reshapes commonly held beliefs about how indigenous Mesoamerican groups acquiesced to European outsiders. The Acolhua weren't submissive, putting up strong resistance, an incredibly bloody one that researchers are now just uncovering.
Sacrificial Victims Had Their Hearts Removed By Priests While They Were Still Alive
Based on what is known about Aztec sacrifice, the Spaniards taken captive in 1520 would have been sacrificed in a very specific way. According to historians, the Aztec flayed their victims alive, cutting open their chests
"...as 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. The victim sometimes was rolled down the steps and priests were receiving the victim at the bottom of the temple. When the heart was taken out and it was offered up to the sun, to the god, it was the most precious of all the offerings humans could give to the gods."
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. European skulls have been found with their temples pierced, an indication that they were hung on the tzompantli.
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 they took but they simply slaughtered the pigs. As a European animal brought to Mesoamerican, pigs were completely new to the Acolhua. They refused to eat the flesh of pigs and merely discarded the animals' bodies after killing them. There have been extensive pig bone discoveries in the wells at Zultépec-Tecoaque.
Captives Were Sacrificed Every Few Days Over A Period Of Months
Based on the remains found at Zultépec-Tecoaque, more than 500 Spanish captives were sacrificed. The evidence indicates that priests took prisoners every day or two to offer to different 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 the "Central Square, where are the temples dedicated to Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl, deity of the wind, and Tezcatlipoca, god of heaven and the earth; the South Plaza with its temples to Tlaloc, god of rain, and Mictlantecuhtli, deity of death."
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. The archeological finds in the makeshift cells used to hold the prisoners reveal that many of 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.