Archaeologists conducting excavations at the Templo Mayor in Mexico City have found more than 160 starfish deposited as part of an offering to the Aztec war god Huītzilōpōchtli some 700 years ago, reports Kiona N. Smith for Ars Technica. Per a statement from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the echinoderms are members of the Nidorellia armata species, which is known as the chocolate chip starfish due to its brown and beige coloring.
Dedicated to Huītzilōpōchtli and Tlaloc, the god of rain and agriculture, the Templo Mayor—the central temple of the Aztec, or Mexica, capital of Tenochtitlán—was constructed around 1325 and renovated in the late 1480s. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés ordered the temple buried after his arrival in Mexico in 1519; its ruins were only rediscovered in the 20th century.
Researchers found the starfish in the remains of a round structure called the Cuauhxicalco. The offering—which consisted of 164 starfish, chunks of coral, seashells, pufferfish, a resin figurine, animal bones and the skeleton of a female jaguar holding a spear in its claw—was placed in a section of the temple associated with Huītzilōpōchtli. The find represents the largest deposit of starfish discovered at the Templo Mayor to date.
“It’s very interesting because, if you think of it, the pattern on the starfish looks very similar to the pelt of a jaguar,” says archaeologist Miguel Báez Pérez in a video posted by the INAH, according to a translation by ARTnews’ Shanti Escalante-De Mattei. “That’s probably the reason they chose this species but we still need to do an exhaustive review to confirm that this is the only species present.”
The Aztecs likely brought the marine organisms to Tenochtitlán from the farthest reaches of the Aztec Empire. As Ars Technica notes, the closest source of chocolate chip starfish was around 186 miles east, while the closest source of coral was roughly the same distance in the opposite direction, at the western edge of the Gulf of Mexico.
“A good part of the Mesoamerican peoples believed that the origin of the world was linked to the sea. Therefore, marine organisms were treated as relics,” says Báez Pérez in the statement, per a translation by the Art Newspaper’s Gabriella Angeleti. “Their military power allowed them to bring thousands of marine objects and recreate an entire aquatic environment in Tenochtitlán itself.”
At the time the offering was made, the regions where the starfish and coral originated had been newly conquered by Aztec ruler Ahuizotl. In power from 1486 to 1502, Ahuizotl was the eighth ruler of the Aztec Empire and the last to rule before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Cortés had Ahuizotl’s son Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, executed in 1522.
During his reign, Ahuizotl focused on the expansion of the empire and renovation of much of Tenochtitlán. Around 1500, he added a sixth layer of construction to the Templo Mayor. Archaeologists discovered the newly revealed starfish offering in this sixth layer.
This isn’t the first time that excavations have uncovered evidence of marine animal offerings at the Templo Mayor. In 2017, reported Norman Hammond for the London Times, researchers analyzing an offering with 50,000 separate elements identified six starfish species, four sand dollar species and two kinds of urchins.
The Aztecs, wrote the scholars in the journal Revista de Biologia Tropical, used the animals to “consecrate enlargements of their temples, commemorate special festivities or to appease the gods.”