Four Aztec Burials Found in Mexico

Even after the fall of the Aztec Empire, new discoveries reveal that some traditions survived

A small figurine of a woman
This blue-pigmented figurine was found buried with the oldest child. Photo courtesy of INAH

When Spanish forces and their allies conquered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán in 1521, they began building directly on top of the city’s ruins and eradicating Aztec religion and traditions.  

But now, a new discovery in Mexico City indicates that some Aztec customs endured in the years that followed.

Archaeologists have found the graves of four children dating to between 1521 and 1620, all buried in accordance with pre-Hispanic practices, according to a statement from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

The children range in age; the youngest was an infant, and the oldest was between six and eight. This older child was buried with several small items, including a blue figurine of a woman holding a girl on her lap.

Why did these children die? The researchers aren’t sure, but the burials “do not have traces of ritual sacrifice,” per the statement, so their deaths are more likely to be “associated with a time of crisis.” 

The older child showed signs of malnutrition and infection, indicating that the harsh living conditions after the Aztec Empire’s fall may have played a role. The youngest infant was found with a uterus-shaped pot, part of an Aztec custom that sought to symbolically return the child to the womb.

When Spanish conquistadors first arrived in 1519, Tenochtitlán was one of the largest cities in the world. Featuring gardens, temples and palaces, the city was a major trade center for the empire. 

The Battle of Tenochtitlán waged for 93 days. The Aztecs were unable to compete with superior weaponry, and many of those who didn’t die by the sword died by disease: The Spanish introduced smallpox to the Aztecs, and the outbreak that followed eventually wiped out half of the city’s residents.

After the Spanish conquered the city, they “expelled the indigenous Mexican population to the city's edges, reserving the center for the homes of only Spaniards,” and they “quickly outlawed most pre-Hispanic ceremonies and religious practices,” as CBS News writes. 

But the children’s burials indicate that, for at least a short time, some of these practices continued.

Last year, Pope Francis sent a message to Mexican bishops apologizing for the Catholic Church’s actions, writing that he wanted  “to recognize the very painful errors committed in the past,” as Mark Stevenson reported for the Associated Press (AP).