When the Spanish had contact in 1519, they discovered with astonishment and terror some
of the Aztec funerary rites where the Mexicas sacrificed human beings and mutilated their corpses to cook them.
Although Hernán Cortés and his conquerors had contact with the Mexica until 1519, the first
contact with the cannibalistic practices of the natives was in 1518, when Diego Velázquez,
governor of Cuba, put the Extremaduran explorer in command of an army made up of 11
ships and 600 men.
In this way, Cortés left for Mexico, arriving in Tabasco, where the Spanish enjoyed the local
cannibalism with amazement, after having defeated the natives several times.
After entering Mexican territory, they arrived and founded the city of Veracruz, which owes
its name to the fact that the Spanish entered this town on “Friday of the Cross“. It would be
here where Cortés would ask his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado to explore the new lands.
Alvarado went deeper into the new territory, confirming that in each town they took there
were so-called “cues” (small pyramidal structures) full of corpses whose hearts had been
removed to be offered to the gods. “They found those dead bodies without arms and legs
and said that other Indians had taken them to eat”, as Bernal Díaz del Castillo narrates in
True History of the Conquest of New Spain. In another expedition, where the Spanish
arrived at Cempoala, the soldiers were terrified to see that the extremities of the prisoners
were cut off to eat them.
In the summer of 1519, when Cortés arrived with the Tlaxcalans, staunch enemies of the
Mexicas, Bernal Díaz del Castillo narrates with astonishment how not only anthropophagy
was common, but prisoners were locked in wooden cages before being sacrificed. to feed
them “until they were fat to slaughter and eat.” The man from Extremadura tried to convince
and force the natives to abandon such a terrible practice, but it would be in vain.
Tenochtitlan is red
Once the Tlaxcalans decided to support the Spanish, they headed to Tenochtitlán, arriving in
1519 and being received with all the pomp by Moctezuma, thinking that they were the
personification of their gods.
Although the Aztecs were scared by the beards, weapons and animals of the Spanish, they
were petrified when they saw some daily practices for this people. As Bernal Díaz del
Castillo explains during one of the dinners with dozens of dishes offered to Moctezuma
every night: “I heard that [him] they used to cook meat from little boys; and that since they
had such a diversity of stews and so many things, we didn’t notice it; because daily hens and
roosters, pheasants, partridges, small cane birds, pigeons, hares, rabbits and many kinds of
birds were cooked for him”. And he continues, “our captain made his sacrifice ugly and he
ate human flesh,” which meant that, “since then, […] they did not cook such a delicacy for
Several chroniclers of the time have explained that the Mexica emperor did not usually eat
human meat, and that he only enjoyed it when a sacrifice was made. And it is that, in the
ritual it was an empowering that the right thigh of the victim was destined for the emperor.
Divinity in the flesh
First of all, it is very important to know that the elite of the Mexica or Aztecs practiced
anthropophagy only for religious purposes, in rituals that had the objective of achieving a
kind of communion with their gods.
The sacrificial ritual was always the same. To begin with, four priests, at the top of a
pyramid, held the arms and legs of the one they were going to offer to their gods.
Meanwhile, a fourth priest would open the victim’s chest with an obsidian knife to rip out the
heart to give as an offering to the gods, then roll the corpse down the steps. According to
Díaz del Castillo, “there, some, whom they called cuacuacuiltin, seized it and took it to the
houses they called calpulli, where they dismembered it and divided it in order to eat it.”
This “peculiar” dish used to be made with corn. According to some chroniclers, the arms and
legs were cooked with peppers and the palm of the hand was an “exquisite bite”.
Those destined to fall to the obsidian knife were often warriors captured in battle, though this
was not always the case. Francisco López de Gómora explains to us: “I want to tell the way
that [the] Mexicans make slaves, because it is very different from ours. The captives in war
did not serve as slaves, but as sacrifices, and they only ate to be eaten. Parents could sell
their children for slaves, and each man and woman himself. When one was sold, the sale
had to be passed in front of at least four witnesses.”
It is important to note that even the conquerors understood that this ritual was not
synonymous with evil within Aztec society. The “owners” of the victims established an almost
paternal relationship with them, and once she was killed, they did not eat her meat.
These sacred rituals had the purpose of ingesting the divine force that housed the body of
the sacrificed. Mexica priests believed that through these sacrifices, they turned the victim
into a reincarnated god, becoming consecrated meat. Therefore, by eating their meat after
certain prayers, they practiced a kind of communion with the divinity.
The elite of the Mexicas or Aztecs practiced cannibalism in certain religious rituals with the
purpose of achieving communion with the divinity. The legs and arms were the most
appreciated parts and the ones that were most frequently consumed, while the hands and
feet were exclusively destined for the high priest and the ruler, as they were the most
appetizing. As for blood, it was never consumed, since it was the exclusive food of the gods.
For their part, warriors could eat human flesh in certain ceremonies.
These ceremonies were carried out on specific dates, such as the atlcahualo festivities, a
celebration that took place in the first month of the year in the Mexica calendar, during which
children were sacrificed in honor of the gods of water or rain. . The human offerings were
given to the priests, who carried out the so-called ritual death (violent death), since in this way they contributed the vital energy of the people to the gods. For later, cook said meat and
Looking for food
Various investigations showed that the Aztecs ate human meat to counteract the lack of
animals to domesticate in the region, it is for this reason that the Mexicas interpreted war as
a form of “organized hunting” to obtain food.
This was mainly due to the fact that in the new continent it was difficult to domesticate
animals for later consumption, contrary to what happened in the Old World, causing
Europeans to see this practice with horror.
Although the practices of sacrifice and cannibalism of the Aztecs are still subject to
discussion and controversy, the truth is that the enormous amount of evidence and stories of
the conquerors tell us of a culture that was not only warrior (as had always been proposed)
but also highly spiritual, however much its practices and violence amaze us today.