Human sacrifice and cannibalism in the Aztec people

Dr. Watrall talked in class on Wednesday about human sacrifice in the Aztec people. We know that their religious ideology dictated human sacrifice in order to placate their sun god and prevent the rise of darkness and the end of the world. As Dr. Watrall said, the choice method of sacrificial murder was the removal of the heart; after this was done, some say, the bodies of the victims were often kicked or otherwise thrown down the steps of the temple/pyramid where the de-hearting had taken place. However, in addition to “merely” sacrificing humans, it is generally accepted by anthropologists that the Aztecs also cannibalized these sacrificial offerings. There are two main theories on why the Aztecs did so; one theory, from Michael Harner is based on the ecological and dietary situation of the Aztecs, and the other, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano’s theory, is based on the ideology of the Aztecs.

Harner’s theory predates Montellano’s by a year (Montellano’s theory is actually a rebuttal to Harner’s). In summary, Harner said that the “typical anthropological explanation is that the religion of the Aztecs required human sacrifices,” but that “this explanation fails to suggest why that particular form of religion should have evolved when and where it did” (Harner). Instead, he said that the Aztec’s environment–specifically, their increasing population and decreasing amount of wild game and lack of domesticable herbivores (for protein). While there were fish and water fowl, Harner believed the poor did not have access to these, and instead had to rely on scant insects and rodents. He also said the while maize and beans can provide all eight of the essential amino acids, they must be eaten in great quantity and at the same time to gain the reward, which was not always possible. The human body, then, which craves what it lacked, turned toward human meat.

In seeming contrast, Harner said that cannibalism was, for the most part, reserved for the elite classes, which also generally had the most access to other forms of protein. However, he stated that “even nobles could suffer from famines and sometimes had to sell their children into slavery in order to survive.” In further support, because the humans sacrificed normally were prisoners of war and war is how one could rise to elite status (by brave fighting and obtaining many POWs), the poor were easily rallied to fight–should the obtain POWs, they would not only be able to attain protein for themselves, but they would also find themselves in a new social class.

Montellano refuted Harner’s hypothesis and offers one of his own. Because human sacrifices (and thus, occurrences of cannibalism) were highest at times of harvest and not during times of scarcity and also because the rate of cannibalism was highest in Tenochtitlan, which not only practiced intense, productive agriculture but also received food tributes, cannibalism among the Aztecs cannot be explained by ecological/dietary circumstances. He stated that because protein deficiencies have the most impact on children and adolescents, and because those fighting in wars were adults who would not gain so many benefits from an extra protein ration, “75 percent of the population was supposed to be motivated to fight and die in the expectation of a possible future reward that could only be of real dietary value to their children.”

Much more likely, Montellano believed, was that the ideology of the Aztecs prompted them to cannibalize their victims. “The acquiescence of the sacrificed victims to their fate [of sacrifice] … is also explainable in terms of their religious ideology” (Montellano). Just as Aztec ideology said that whether a man received rewards in the afterlife depended on his being either sacrificed to the gods or killed in battle, it said that sacrificial victims were sacred. Thus, “eating their flesh was the act of eating the god itself” (Montellano). That they desired to achieve this union with god through consumption is also promulgated in their consumption of psychotropic plants.

Again, though, it is important to remember that much of the information we have about Aztecs comes from Spaniards and natives who fought against the Aztecs. This lack of firsthand evidence yet firm acceptance by most that cannibalism was practiced by the Aztecs is acknowledged by James Q. Jacobs as what he called the “cannibalism paradigm.”


Harner’s research:                           Montellano’s research:                           James Q. Jacobs:                                                    Other:

One thought on “Human sacrifice and cannibalism in the Aztec people

  1. kalleksc

    I also did my fourth blog post on human sacrifice and I saw that you commented on it. I read through your blog post and was also surprised to find how similar the practice of human sacrifice was for both the Maya and the Aztecs. I am not certain of the religious beliefs of both groups but I feel that they were relatively similar and because the Maya empire rose before the Aztec empire its likely this ritual culture was inherited. This could have happened in many ways maybe through the influence the Maya had over the surrounding cultures that eventually sprung up to become the Aztecs. Or maybe it was passed along by elites after a collapse similar to that the fleeing elites of San Jose Mogote that formed Monte Alban which we covered in class. From what I read I did not find anything about Maya cannibalism but it is still interesting to think why this practice may have arose later in time. As for why cultures change their views on human sacrifice I believe that a lot of it has to do with the influence of the western culture on native populations either by choice or force. Another explanation might be the growing complexity of a culture and as the knowledge of the physical world increased these rituals slowly slipped into the past. But one can only speculate on why there was a change in views. It seems that we both have similar thoughts on the subject and reading your blog post gave me a greater understanding of the practice of human sacrifice and its importance in early cultures.

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