Montezuma's revenge: Cannibalism in the age of The Conquistadors

When Cortez led the Spanish to victory over the Aztecs 500 years ago, the indigenous population gave up without a fight. Or so the story goes. But new evidence suggests that some of the invaders suffered a grisly fate. By David Usborne

As every Mexican schoolchild knows, theirs is a nation forged nearly 500 years ago by the conquests of a Spanish adventurer named Hernando Cortez who subdued the once-proud Aztec Empire with just a few hundred men. They also know that Cortez was helped by European disease - which eventually wiped out much of the indigenous population - and, most importantly, by misplaced Aztec hospitality.

The story is told every day still, lingering like an arrow in Mexico's national pride. As Cortez marched towards the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, on the same site as today's Mexico City, defeating other tribes and forging alliances along his way, the then Aztec King, Montezuma II, failed to put up a fight, instead welcoming Cortez into the city as his guest. By way of thanks, Cortez put the king in prison and the colonisation of the greatest culture in Mesoamerica by Spain and the Catholic Church had begun. The only revenge taken by Montezuma that anyone will tell you about is, of course, of the gastrointestinal variety suffered by foreign tourists unaccustomed to Mexico's cuisine. Until now, that is.

An archaeological dig in Calpulalpan in the state of Tlaxcala, about 100 miles east of modern Mexico City, has surrendered evidence suggesting that at least at this place the Aztecs got their chance for a shocking pay-back. Experts say that in 1520, Aztec warriors captured a caravan of Spanish conquistadors as they travelled towards Tenochtitlan and did not treat them mercifully. Instead they caged them, sacrificed them individually over a period of months and then - most grisly of all - they ate them.

It is a discovery revealed by the study of hundreds of skeletons and bones unearthed at the site since excavations began in 1990, which will demand revisions in Mexico's history books and a readjustment of our perception of Aztec culture and how foolishly compliant it really was.

"This is the first place that has so much evidence [that] there was resistance to the conquest," said the archaeologist Enrique Martinez, director of the dig at Calpulalpan. "It shows it wasn't all submission. There was a fight."

That the Aztecs practised human sacrifice is well known. Cortez wrote despairingly of it and there are many surviving depictions of the act. Indeed every member of Aztec society was expected to be ready to offer themselves to the Gods if asked to. Each ceremony would begin with an unfortunate soul being lifted on a slab of stone on the steps or on the top of an Aztec pyramid, where priests would rip open his abdomen and remove his heart, which would then be raised in a bowl as an offering to the Gods.

Nor was human sacrifice just an occasional event in the Aztec calendar. Scores were conducted on each of their 18 festival days in the year. According to Aztec writings, as many as 84,000 people, all prisoners of regional skirmishes, were sacrificed on a single occasion to mark the consecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487. Scholars have cast doubt on the simple feasibility of so many people being slaughtered at once, but the Aztecs used to boast to the Spanish that they did not kill their foes in war, but rather took them prisoner only to take their lives, and pluck out their hearts, when the fighting was over.

There is little mystery, meanwhile, over how such a proud and cultivated people succumbed so quickly to the Spanish marauders. Two factors seemingly informed the decision of Montezuma to open the gates of his capital city to Cortez and his men. On the one hand, the Aztecs were reportedly dazzled and also intimidated by the Spanish soldiers, their firearms and in particular the horses they rode. More importantly, however, they were distracted by the teachings of their gods.

Legend had taught them that one day a "white god" would descend among them and that they should be ready at all times to welcome him. The quandary for Montezuma was this: perhaps Cortez, with his pale European skin, was the returning white god and his arrival therefore a celestial gift.

The fall of Tenochtitlan did not happen all at once. Angry at the imprisonment of Montezuma, the Aztecs did finally lose their illusions about their visitors and mounted a rebellion in June 1520. The Spanish fled the city. Cortez rounded up more allies from rivals of the Aztecs and the following year laid siege to the capital for three months until it eventually fell. But it was hunger and primarily disease that finally sealed the fate of the capital, of the empire and of Aztec society, beginning with a plague of smallpox in 1520 which was followed up later in the century by two huge outbreaks of typhus. Scholars believe that smallpox alone killed off as much as half of the Aztec population.

"How can we save our homes, my people," begins a lament written at the time by an anonymous Aztec poet. "The Aztecs are deserting the city/The city is in flames and all is darkness and destruction/Weep my people/ Know that with these disasters/ We have lost the Mexican nation/ The water has turned bitter/Our food is bitter/These are the acts of the Giver of Life".

The dig at Calpulalpan tells us, however, that the Aztecs were not alone in suffering. What happened at the site seems now to have amounted to a massacre of followers of Cortez that did not happen all at once but over a period of as many as six months. As many as 550 people were seemingly killed, all belonging to the caravan bringing supplies from the sea to the capital. Slow-moving and therefore easy prey, the caravan was made up of a mixture of mulattos (mixed-blood African-Europeans), mestizos (mixed-blood Spanish-Indians) and Mayan Indians, including cooks, tradesmen and porters. Among their number were men, women and children.

Their capture was indeed revenge but not in the name of Montezuma, who had yet to be defeated, but rather of Cacamatzin, another king who ruled over the second most important Aztec city, Texcoco, who had been murdered by soldiers loyal to Cortez as they marched across the country.

If we knew that the Aztecs practised human sacrifice, scholars have been far more wary about claims that they also indulged in cannibalism. The discoveries at Calpulalpan - in those days called Zultepec - by Mr Martinez and his team of archeologists seem to warrant an end to such caution, however. Painstaking inspection of the bones and skeletons found leave little doubt that the victims' bodies were not only dismembered by the Aztecs but also served up as food. According to Mr Martinez, knife cuts and even teeth marks are visible on some bones showing how human flesh had been stripped off to be cooked. He also contends that he has found evidence that some pregnant women in caravans were seized and their unborn babies stabbed while still in their bellies, as part of a religious ritual.

That was not the end of the cruelty. After their capture, all the caravan's members were placed in cages. Aztec priests, imported to Zultepec from the capital, would come to the cages before dawn and select individuals for that day's sacrificial activities. If there was any mercy shown at all, it may have been the drugging of the victims with hallucinogenic mushrooms or pulque - an intoxicating substance made from fermented cactus juice - to at least soften some of their fear of what was about to befall them.

"It was a continuous sacrifice over six months. While the prisoners were listening to their companions being sacrificed, the next ones were being selected," Martinez explained to a visiting reporter from the Reuters news agency. "You can only imagine what it was like for the last ones, who were left six months before being chosen, their anguish."

Zultepec at the time was a fairly large Aztec settlement, perhaps numbering 5,000 people, most of them farmers and traders. The drawn-out massacre of his followers eventually caught the attention of Cortez who instantly changed the town's name to Tecuaque, which means "where people were eaten" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and still of some indigenous Mexicans today. And eventually Cortez dispatched his soldiers to punish the Aztecs for what they had done - a military decision that nearly 500 years later turned out to be extremely helpful to the archaeologists.

On hearing of the approaching Spanish, the Aztecs seemingly attempted to conceal all possible proof of the slaughter, principally by hurling all of the victims' possessions down deep wells, including items such as jewellery and buttons, which are now being excavated. European livestock that had arrived with the caravan, including goats and pigs, were disposed of in much the same way.

"They hid all the evidence," said Martinez. "Thanks to that act, we have been allowed to discover a chapter we were unaware of in the conquest of Mexico."

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