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While there is universal agreement that some Mesoamerican people practiced human
sacrifice, there is a lack of scholarly consensus as to whether
in pre-Columbian America was
widespread. At one extreme anthropologist Marvin Harris, author of
Cannibals and Kings, has
suggested that the flesh of the victims was a part of an
aristocratic diet as a reward, since the Aztec diet was lacking in proteins. According to Harris, the Aztec
economy would not support feeding them as slaves and the columns of
prisoners were "marching meat". At the other extreme, William Arens
doubts whether there was ever any systematic cannibalism.
The Mexica are perhaps the
most widely studied of the ancient Mesoamerican people. While most
pre-Columbian historians believe that there was ritual cannibalism
related to human sacrifices, they do not support Harris's thesis
that human flesh was ever a significant portion of the Aztec diet.
Noted scholar Michael D. Coe states that while "it is
incontrovertible that some of these victims ended up by being eaten
ritually […], the practice was more like a form of communion than a
There is some documentation of Aztec cannibalism, mainly
accounts from the date of the conquest:
Cortés wrote in one of his letters that his soldiers had
captured an indigenous man who had a roasted baby ready for
- Francisco López de Gómara
reported that, during the siege of Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards asked the
Aztecs to surrender since they had no food. The Aztecs angrily
challenged the Spaniards to attack so they could be taken as
prisoners, sacrificed and served with "molli" sauce.
- In the book of Bernardino de Sahagún, the first
Mesoamerican ethnographer according to Miguel León-Portilla, there is an
illustration of an Aztec being cooked by an unknown tribe. This was
reported as one of the dangers that Aztec traders faced.
- The Ramírez codex, written by an Aztec using
alphabet after the Conquest of
Mexico, reports that after the sacrifices the flesh from the
hands of the victim were given as a gift to the warrior who made
the human capture. According to the codex, this was supposedly
eaten, but in fact discarded and replaced with turkey.
- In his book Relación Juan Bautista de
Pomar states that after the sacrifice the body of the victim
was given to the warrior responsible for the capture. He would boil
the body and cut it to pieces to be offered as gifts to important
people in exchange for presents and slaves; but it was rarely
eaten, since they considered it of no value. However, Bernal Díaz reports that some of these
parts of human flesh made their way to the Tlatelolco market near Tenochtitlan.
- In 2005 the INAH reported that some of the bodies found
under Mexico City's
Cathedral, i.e. the basement of Aztec temples, showed cut marks indicating the removal
of muscles from the bones, though not all the bodies show this
- In August 2006, Reuters
reported that an analysis of the skeletons of 550 victims killed after the
conquest and found near Calpulalpan, Tlaxcala, indicate that some of the victims
were dismembered, and that many bones showed
knife, teeth marks and evidence of boiling.
Bernal Díaz's account
Bernal Díaz’s The Conquest
of New Spain contains several instances of cannibalism
among the people the conquistadors encountered during their
warring expedition to Tenochtitlan.
- About the city of Cholula, Díaz wrote he was shocked to see young
men in cages ready to be sacrificed and eaten.
- About the Quetzalcoatl temple of Tenochtitlan Díaz
wrote that inside it was full of large pots, where human flesh of
the sacrificed Indians was boiled and cooked to feed the
- About the Mesoamerican towns in general Díaz wrote that some of
the indigenous people he saw were—:
||eating human meat, just
like we take cows from the butcher’s shops, and they have in all
towns thick wooden jail-houses, like cages, and in them they put
many Indian men, women and boys to fatten, and being fattened they
sacrificed and ate them.
Díaz's testimony is corroborated by other Spanish historians who
wrote about the conquest. In History of Tlaxcala, Diego
Muñoz Camargo states that:
||Thus there were public
butcher's shops of human flesh, as if it were of cow or sheep.
Accounts of the Aztec Empire as a "Cannibal Kingdom", Marvin
Harris's expression, have been commonplace from Bernal Díaz to
Harris, William H. Prescott and Michael
Harner. Harner has accused his colleagues, especially those in
Mexico, of downplaying the evidence of Aztec cannibalism. Ortiz de
presents evidence that the Aztec diet was balanced and that the
dietary contribution of cannibalism would not have been very
effective as a reward.. According to skeptics such as James Q.
Jacobs, questions remain about whether such evidence exists to the
extent that Harner and others claim, and about the veracity of
ethnohistorical accounts authors alleging cannibalism considered
Díaz del Castillo [c.1568](1992, p.150).
Díaz del Castillo [c.1568](1992, p.176).
Díaz del Castillo [c.1568](1992, p.579). In the original Spanish:
"[...] comer carne humana, así como nosotros traemos vaca de
las carnicerías, y tenían en todos los pueblos cárceles de madera
gruesa hechas a manera de casas, como jaulas, y en ellas metían a
engordar muchas indias e indios y muchachos, y estando gordos los
sacrificaban y comían."
Excerpt translated from Muñoz Camargo [c.1585](1947, p.153). In the
original Spanish: "Ansí había carnicerías públicas de carne
humana, como si fueran de vaca y carnero como en día de hoy las hay
Ortiz de Montellano, B.R. "Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological
Necessity," Science, 200, 611-617.1978