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A scene interpreted as cannibalism in the Codex Magliabechiano folio 73r

While there is universal agreement that some Mesoamerican people practiced human sacrifice, there is a lack of scholarly consensus as to whether cannibalism 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.


Aztec 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 cannibal feast".

There is some documentation of Aztec cannibalism, mainly accounts from the date of the conquest:

  • Hernán Cortés wrote in one of his letters that his soldiers had captured an indigenous man who had a roasted baby ready for breakfast.
  • 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 the Latin 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 Metropolitan 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 treatment.
  • 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.[1]
  • 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 priests.[2]
  • 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.[3]

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.[4]


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 Montellano [5] 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 evidentiary.

See also


  1. ^ Díaz del Castillo [c.1568](1992, p.150).
  2. ^ Díaz del Castillo [c.1568](1992, p.176).
  3. ^ 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."
  4. ^ 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 […]".
  5. ^ Ortiz de Montellano, B.R. "Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological Necessity," Science, 200, 611-617.1978


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