During the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, interactions between the Aztecs and the European colonizers were often marked by horrifying atrocities. Now, reports the Associated Press, archaeologists have unearthed a nightmarish new chapter in that story. In early 1521, the year after the Aztecs captured and cannibalized a convoy of dozens of Spaniards and hundreds of allied Indigenous people, Spanish forces responded by massacring Aztec women and children.
Researchers with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have long known about the cannibalism that took place in the town of Zultépec-Tecoaque in 1520. The name Tecoaque, after all, means “the place where they ate them” in the Aztec language of Nahuatl. But the new research reveals previously unknown details of what happened next.
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in Yucatán in early 1519 with 11 ships, 16 horses and about 600 men. At the time, the Aztec empire was in crisis. Cortés formed an alliance with the rival nation of Tlaxcala and found many other supporters among peoples subjugated by the empire. Per Mexico News Daily, the convoy cannibalized in Tecoaque was part of an expedition ordered by Cuban Governor Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, who wanted to stop Cortés’ invasion because he hadn’t authorized it.
According to the AP, the convoy was comprised of approximately 15 male Spaniards; 50 Spanish women; 10 children; 45 foot soldiers, including Cubans of African and Indigenous backgrounds; and 350 mainland Indigenous people who were allies of the Spanish. In a statement, INAH estimates that the local Acolhua people of Zultépec, allies of the Aztec empire, sacrificed the captives to their gods over “eight agonizing months.” During that time, the archaeologists found, the town’s population grew to about 5,000, as people from the Aztec capital of Tenochitlan arrived to participate in the ceremonies.
Remains from these rituals show that the heads of both male and female prisoners were strung up on skull racks, or towers. Bone analysis shows that the women treated in this way were pregnant—a fact that may have qualified them for treatment as “warriors.” Per the AP, the archaeologists also found a woman’s body that was cut in half and left near the remains of a dismembered 3- or 4-year-old child.
Writing in the journal Arqueología Mexicana, researcher Enrique Martínez Vargas notes that the Aztecs viewed human sacrifice as a way of restoring earthly and celestial order and securing the survival of their civilization. The archaeologist quotes 16th-century Spanish chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who wrote that the Aztecs had sprinkled the blood of sacrificed Spaniards onto likenesses of their deities.
Vargas tells the AP that the town’s inhabitants appear to have been aware that the Spanish forces, under Cortés’ command, were coming to take revenge. Locals threw the Spaniards’ bones, including some that had been carved into trophies, into wells and built up their defensive walls. Ultimately, however, they had little protection when Cortés’ lieutenant, Gonzalo de Sandoval, led his soldiers into their homes.
“Some of the warriors who had stayed in the town managed to flee, but women and children remained, and they were the main victims,” says INAH in the statement, adding that the researchers discovered “the skeletons of a dozen women … who appeared to be ‘protecting’ the bones of ten children between the ages of 5 and 6.”
The remains of the village’s women and children show signs of mutilation. Spanish forces also burned the town’s temples and decapitated statues of gods.