Mexico archaeologists reveal tale of cannibalism and reprisal from conquest

New research suggests Spanish conquistadores butchered at least a dozen women and their children in an Aztec-allied town where the inhabitants sacrificed and ate a detachment of Spaniards they had captured months earlier.

The National Institute of Anthropology and History published findings on Monday from years of excavation work at the town of Tecoaque, which means “the place where they ate them” in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs.

Residents of Tecoaque, also known as Zultepec, captured a convoy of about 15 male Spaniards, 50 women and 10 children, 45 foot soldiers who included Cubans of African and Indigenous descent, and about 350 allies from Indigenous groups in 1520. All were apparently sacrificed over the space of months.

When he heard about it, the conquistador Hernán Cortés ordered Gonzalo de Sandoval to destroy the town in revenge in early 1521.

Archaeologist Enrique Martínez Vargas said excavations suggest the inhabitants of Tecoaque knew a reprisal attack was coming and tossed the bones of the Spaniards – some of which had been carved into trophies – and other evidence into shallow wells.

The townspeople also tried to erect some primitive defensive works along the main thoroughfare of the town, none of which worked when De Sandoval and his punitive expedition rode in.

“Some of the warriors who had stayed in the town managed to flee, but women and children remained, and they were the main victims,” the institute said in a statement. “This we have been able to demonstrate over a 120-metre stretch of the main thoroughfare, where the skeletons of a dozen women were found who appeared to be ‘protecting’ the bones of 10 children between the ages of five and six.”

Photos of the excavations show children’s bones beside those of the adult females, with some of the women’s skulls or arm bones turned toward the youngsters.

“The placement of the burials suggest these people were fleeing, were massacred and buried hurriedly,” the institute said. “Women and children who were sheltering inside rooms were mutilated, as evidenced by the discovery of hacked bones on the floors. The temples were burned and the statues were decapitated.”

Cruelty was on display on both sides in Tecoaque, the site of one of the worst defeats in the Spanish conquest of 1519-21.

Hernando Cortez meets the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II.
Hernando Cortez meets the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II. Photograph: Images

The heads of the captive Spanish women were strung up on skull racks alongside those of men. An analysis of the bones revealed the women were pregnant, and in pre-Hispanic practice that may have qualified them as “warriors”. Another sacrificial offering included one woman’s body that was cut in half near the remains of a dismembered child aged three or four.

One Spanish male was dismembered and burned to replicate the mythical fates of Aztec-era gods, according to one myth known as “El Quinto Sol”, or the Fifth Sun.

The convoy comprised people sent from Cuba in a second expedition a year after Cortés’s initial landing in 1519 and they were heading to the Aztec capital with supplies and the conquerors’ possessions. Cortés had been forced to leave the convoy on its own while trying to rescue his troops from an uprising in what is now Mexico City.

Members of the captured convoy were held prisoner in door-less cells, where they were fed over six months, the experts said. Little by little, the town sacrificed and apparently ate the horses, men and women. But pigs brought by the Spaniards for food were apparently viewed with such suspicion that they were killed whole and left uneaten.

In contrast, the skeletons of the captured Europeans were torn apart and bore cut marks indicating the meat was removed from the bones.

Cortés went on to conquer the Aztec capital later in 1521.

Mexico is marking the 500th anniversary of the conquest this year with a special round of research and scholarly conferences.