Discovery of Tower of Human Heads in Mexico Rewrites What We Thought We Knew about the Ancient Aztecs

Picture yourself as an archaeologist. You’re on a dig in Mexico City. Day after day, you unearth broken pieces of pottery or fragments of bone. What if one day, you saw the top of a skull, then another one and another one. Soon, you unearth a colossal tower of skulls.

That’s exactly what happened to a Mexico City archaeology team recently–they found a 200-foot diameter skull tower that has silently existed beneath the surface for over 500 years. Skull towers like this were mentioned in the historical accounts of Hernan Cortez’s expeditions by conquistador Andres de Tapia, who traveled with Cortez. After Mexico was discovered in 1518, Cortez was chosen to establish a colony there. He arrived on the coast of what is now known as the state of Tabasco, continued up the coast, and reached the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in November 1519.

Cortez’s soldiers mentioned the amazing tower, calling it Huey Tzompantli, near the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan. The site is next to the modern-day Metropolitan Cathedral, which is situated over the ancient Templo Mayor, one of the most important temples of the Aztec culture. Huey Tzompantli was in a small section of the temple known as the chapel of Huitzilopochtli, built to honor the Aztec god of war and the sun.

Skull towers were very common, but Huey Tzompantli was the largest. The Mexican people have passed down stories about the towers through many generations, with tall tales about how the towers struck fear into the Spanish conquistadors.

Why did the Aztecs build skull towers? A commonly held belief was that the towers were built from the skulls of defeated warriors as a looming reminder of what could happen to their own people if the Aztecs didn’t remain a military powerhouse. The belief was that Aztec gods required human sacrifice, so they sought out volunteers from their own people. The religious meaning was that the universe and Aztec civilization could be sustained only if individuals were willing to give up their most precious possession—their own lives.

At the center of the Aztec religion was a fear of nature and an even greater fear that the universe would end every 52 years according to the Aztec calendar. All types of sacrifices, not just human ones, were done to appease the gods. The sun god in particular needed human sacrifice to stay strong so the universe wouldn’t end every 52 years.

The Aztecs also believed in an afterlife of either light or darkness, and how you died affected your afterlife. Sacrifice to the sun god Huitzilopochtli was an honorable death because the person would join the god in the battle against the darkness, or be reincarnated as an animal or a human.

Normally, volunteers were plentiful—pure people, nobility, or brave warriors. Priests would perform the ritual, usually drugging the person, then killing them. Sometimes orphans or sick children were chosen. When volunteers did not come forward, Aztecs captured neighboring peoples. The Aztecs were amazing warriors, but the goal of these campaigns was to take captives alive. Warriors were celebrated for their ability at live captures. Captives were slaves but were respected; everyone knew the eventual outcome.

The rituals were violent and gory. Christian soldiers traveling with Cortez gave shocking accounts of 80,000 sacrifices done at a pyramid dedication.

Archaeologists were not surprised at the discovery of the tower itself, but they were stunned at the types of skulls in the tower. As it turns out, the skulls are of all sizes, meaning that some belonged to women and children. It was previously thought that Aztecs only sacrificed young men, but now it appears they took everyone.

Scientists are closely studying the revelation, wondering if the Aztecs performed mass sacrifices of all captives. There were no historical accounts of anyone other than men being sacrificed, and the find is making historians question everything they thought they knew.

The first skull was originally found in 2015, and scientists have painstakingly worked at the excavation ever since. Nearly 650 skulls have been uncovered so far; the tower could have had as many as 60,000 skulls. Since only 1 percent of skulls have been revealed, perhaps it is an anomaly. Perhaps a rogue village created problems for the Aztecs, who sacrificed them all. If more women’s and children’s skulls are found, it means the Aztecs performed human sacrifice on a broader scale than was previously thought.

Additional excavation continues at the ongoing archaeological site. Scientists are hoping to uncover more clues about this remarkable find.

~ Christian Patriot Daily


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