MEXICO CITY—It has long been a matter of contention: Was the Aztec and Mayan practice of human sacrifice as widespread and horrifying as the history books say? Or did the Spanish conquerors overstate it to make the Indians look primitive?
In recent years, archaeologists have been uncovering mounting physical evidence that corroborates the Spanish accounts in substance, if not number.
Using high-tech forensic tools, archaeologists are proving that pre-Hispanic sacrifices often involved children and a broad array of intentionally brutal killing methods.
But there is no longer as much doubt about the nature of the killings. Indian pictorial texts known as “codices,” as well as Spanish accounts from the time, quote Indians describing multiple forms of human sacrifice.
Victims had their hearts cut out or were decapitated, shot full of arrows, clawed, sliced to death, stoned, crushed, skinned, buried alive or tossed from the tops of temples.
Children were said to be frequent victims, in part because they were considered pure and unspoiled.
The Maya, whose culture peaked farther east about 400 years before the Aztecs founded Mexico City in 1325, had a similar taste for sacrifice, Harvard University anthropologist David Stuart wrote in a 2003 article.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, “The first researchers tried to make a distinction between the ‘peaceful’ Maya and the ‘brutal’ cultures of central Mexico,” Stuart wrote. “They even tried to say human sacrifice was rare among the Maya.”
But in carvings and mural paintings, he said, “we have now found more and greater similarities between the Aztecs and Mayas,” including a Maya ceremony in which a costumed priest is shown pulling the entrails from a bound and apparently living sacrificial victim.