Trapped in their cells, the captives must have heard the screams and wondered when it would be their turn. Day after day, month after month, individuals were selected and hauled outside, never to return. Their fellow prisoners could have had little concept of quite what had befallen them, however.
In 2015 archaeologists working in Zultépec-Tecoaque in Tlaxcala, Mexico, found disturbing new evidence of the way in which 550 individuals had met their deaths in the early 16th century. Events appear to have unfolded as follows. In 1520 the Spanish-led travelers were en route to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan – now Mexico City – when they were captured. Over the course of several months, they were then imprisoned before being sacrificed to the gods and consumed as food.
The discoveries are significant, too, as they help to dispel the belief that indigenous Mexicans did little to resist the Spanish invasion. They also suggest that history could have turned out very differently for the region. Hernán Cortés, the man who would conquer the Aztec empire, had himself been part of the ill-fated group. And if he had been captured and killed, then history might have followed a very different path.
At the time of the Spanish conquest, the leading political force in Central Mexico was the Aztec Triple Alliance – an empire that united the Mexica, Tepaneca and Texcoca tribes. Of these, the Mexica were the most powerful. Over a period of 200 years, their power had grown, and by the start of the 16th century their capital, Tenochtitlan, was the largest metropolis in the Americas.
The empire had won its power through warfare and conquest, but there was far more to Aztec civilization than just killing and human sacrifice. Aztec culture in fact embraced pursuits that included mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, music, poetry, art and dance. And when the gold-hungry Spaniards arrived, these conquistadors soon turned their attention to the wealth of Tenochtitlan.
In 1519 Hernán Cortés began his invasion of Mexico. In eight months he reached Tenochtitlan, assisted by local forces including Aztec tributary states such as Tlaxcala. When he arrived at the Mexica capital, though, he was greeted as a guest by Emperor Moctezuma II. The emperor in fact believed that Cortés might be the god Quetzalcoatl, who was prophesized to return to Mexico that year. Just six days later, Cortés took the emperor captive; he then began using him as a puppet ruler.
However, since Cortés was acting without the permission of the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, his expedition was actually unauthorized. In March 1520 Panfilo de Narvaez was dispatched to the mainland to take charge. Then in May of the same year, Cortés journeyed out of Tenochtitlan in order to confront Narvaez.
Cortés met Narvaez on the Gulf Coast and overcame him at the Battle of Cempoala, enabling him to acquire new troops and supplies. His contingent included Spaniards, Afro-Cubans and allied indigenous people, with 50 women and ten children among their number. However, in his absence, Pedro de Alvarado, who’d been left behind, had ordered his men to slaughter thousands of Aztec nobles, apparently after hearing rumors of a conspiracy. Responding to the massacre, the populace of the city then turned upon the Spaniards.
As news of an uprising arrived, Cortés and his forces headed back to Tenochtitlan. Due to the urgency of the situation, the leader decided to ride on ahead. While Cortés rushed to the aid of his men, though, his caravan was captured by the Acolhuas. Their capital was Texcoco – one of the three main power centers in the Aztec Triple Alliance – and they saw the conquistadors and their allies as hostile invaders. The hostages were not taken to the city of Texcoco, however, but to the town of Zultépec.
Located 100 miles east of Tenochtitlan, Zultépec was then home to a population of 5,000. And, in recent years, archaeologists have done a great deal to unearth the town’s ceremonial center. Indeed, researchers have identified the temples of Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl, Mictlantecuhtli, Tlaloc and Tezcatlipoca as well as a range of residential buildings.
In 2015 Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) initiated the Zultépec-Tecoaque Archaeological Project. Led by Enrique Martínez Vargas and Ana María Jarquín Pacheco, the project has identified several rooms which probably served as prison cells for the captured travelers. In fact, the evidence suggests that housing the prisoners was a substantial undertaking.
Specifically, according to the INAH, significant architectural changes were required to accommodate the captives. To provide space, residents vacated their dwellings and moved into new structures. And more disturbingly, Martinez believes it’s impossible to deny the fact that they were kept in order to be sacrificed in religious rituals.
Human sacrifice was practiced widely in ancient Mesoamerica and probably dates back to the Olmec cultures, which existed between 1200 and 400 B.C., if not earlier. Believing that the gods perpetually sacrificed themselves for humanity, the Aztecs regarded human sacrifice as an offering towards mankind’s immense spiritual debt. These sacrifices were spread across the calendar and often accompanied feasting and revelry.
Indeed, some of the prisoners at Zultépec appear to have been sacrificed in conjunction with Mexica festivals. Martinez believes that the sacrifices were a request for divine protection. “The distribution of the bodies refers to the Mesoamerican myths of origin which speaks of the anguish they experienced when facing the conqueror,” the scholar explained.
Meanwhile, an analysis of the captives’ skeletal remains suggests that the Acolhua actually ate their victims. Some bones, for example, exhibit cuts where the flesh had been torn away. Other bones appear to have been cooked and had the marrow sucked from them. And it seems that the Acolhua ate not only the European travelers and their allies but their horses as well. The only animals that they did not consume were the pigs.
Many intriguing artifacts have also been found at the site, including figures which appear to represent the travelers themselves. These pieces, which may have been carved by the captives, also seem to have been decapitated, perhaps for symbolic or ritual reasons.
On top of that, more than two hundred objects belonging to the Europeans have been recovered from cisterns at the site. These include jewelry, ceramics, nails and equestrian paraphernalia. According to the INAH, the Acolhua probably dumped them to hide what they had done. And Cortés was indeed unforgiving when he learned what had happened.
The conquistador leader in fact sent Gonzalo de Sandoval to annihilate the town – and it seems that he did. According to Martinez, the distribution of ceramic containers at the site is “a clear sign of an untimely abandonment.” After its destruction, Zultépec took a fresh Nahuatl name: Tecoaque, which translates as “the place where they ate them.”
Meanwhile, on August 13, 1521, following the near-hundred-day siege of Tenochtitlan, Cortés and his forces finally toppled the Aztec empire. Spain wouldn’t, however, fully subjugate Yucatan until 1697 and would take centuries to conquer Alta California. Nevertheless, approximately eight million indigenous people died during the first phase of the Spanish invasion of the Americas.
In Mexico, it is common practice to name streets and plazas after national heroes, but few major thoroughfares have been named after Cortés. Likewise, there apparently exists only one public statue of the leader in Mexico: a small bust inside a hospital in Mexico City. Aztec society is often described as “barbaric.” However, today, in Mexico, it is Cortés who is arguably a source of national shame.