By Eduard Ribas i Admetlla
Mexico City, Oct 7 (EFE).- Who were they? Where did they come from? Why were they sacrificed? Those are some of the unanswered questions about the thousands of people whose skulls remained buried under what is now Mexico City for five centuries.
“This discovery is hugely important because it represents the essence of the Mexica religion and cosmovision,” Raul Barrera, an archaeologist with the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), told Efe Thursday from the site.
The story begins in 2015, when the owners of a derelict building behind the cathedral on the city’s giant main square, the Zocalo, applied for a permit to rehabilitate the structure.
Construction work in the Zocalo is subject to stringent review because the plaza sits over the ruins of the core of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire.
The permit was granted and when the workers came upon thousands of bones, the archaeologists INAH sent to monitor the renovation were quick to realize that they had found the Huey Tzompantli (Great Skull Rack) mentioned in the accounts of the Spanish conquistadores.
“It was very emotional. Archaeology has significant doses of emotion, but it also requires a very significant dose of patience,” INAH’s Lorena Vazquez says.
Built circa 1440, the Huey Tzompantli was a platform roughly 36 m (118 ft) long topped by a scaffolding of poles on cross-bars adorned with the skulls of thousands of people who were sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war.
Flanking the platform were towers of skulls and mortars standing more than 4 m high.
INAH remains at work on the excavation of one of those towers, while the other is assumed to lie beneath the cathedral.
While some view the discovery of the skulls as confirming that the Mexicas – the rulers of the Aztec Empire – were a barbarous people, Vazquez says the Huey Tzompantli embodied a “worship of life.”
“It was clear to the Mexicas that to maintain the cycles of life, it was necessary to feed the sun and that sun eats (human) hearts. Where we see death, they see order and the maintenance of the universe,” she says, insisting that the Mexicas did not kill just for the sake of killing.
Genetic analysis of the more than 600 individual skulls catalogued thus far indicates that most of them were men between the ages of 25 and 35, though remains of women and a relatively small number of children have also been identified.
What remains to be determined is how the victims were selected. Scholars speculate that many were prisoners of war, slaves or members of conquered populations.
Barrera says that he continues to be surprised by how well-preserved the skulls are, given that they have been buried since 1521, when the army of Hernan Cortes toppled the empire and dismantled the temples of Tenochtitlan for the materials to build what became Mexico City.
INAH physical anthropologist Jorge Gomez suggests the damp subsoil of Tenochtitlan, which was erected on a lake, may have protected the bones.
He says that study of the skulls has already yielded clues about the nature of their lives.
“From the teeth we could infer that the subjects had optimal conditions of life,” he tells Efe. EFE